Power to the People, Pittance to Progressive

I’ve heard many marketing managers pray for their campaigns to “go viral.” As I wrote back in April 2011, something going viral versus developing a grassroots campaign can be extraordinarily different. Businesses should never hope for viral campaigns.

Viruses are bad.

Progressive, the insurance company that brought one of the most memorable character-based advertising campaigns with “Flo,” discovered just how destructive a viral campaign can be in social media.

The Wall Street Journal is the latest to cover the story of a family who took their insurance boondoggle story to social media. In a society fed up with big corporations screwing over the little guy, a small $75,000 settlement proposal turned into a public relations nightmare that likely cost the company much more.

What’s worse for Progressive — it took executives there four days to figure out they were in a crisis.

The snowball effect looks at the number of people who become engaged and are likely to share that based on the engagement effect. It’s an exponential equation that compounds over time. I saw this with campaigns I’ve cultivated myself. The growth is steady and predictable.

In the case of a viral campaign, it’s more like the movie “Contagion,” and rather than a steady pace of growth, the viral growth has a kind of R-knot — a factor by which one person can infect so many others. In the movie, the flu-like virus starts with an R-knot of two. This means one person will infect two people, those two infect four, those four infect eight, and so on. But as the virus mutates, the R-knot will increase.

In social media, each platform is a new mutation.

Twitter, Facebook, Google-Plus, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. all bring the potential for infection. As for the R-knot, each infectee provides a different factor based on the number of followers, friends, etc. and that level of engagement.

Comedians joke how we all are now connected with old high school friends we would have never connected with if it weren’t for Facebook. Do you actually engage with them? Or do you ignore them except to wish them a happy birthday? Or is it those not-so-computer savvy folks who click “share” if you love puppies?

In this case, the R-knot hit a jet-stream of PR destruction and Progressive’s social media team failed to get out in front. What was a minor disturbance off the coast brewed into a category 5 hurricane that slammed into Flo.

Now Progressive and other insurance carriers must be prepared for the onslaught of copycats who probably have equally or even more compelling stories. Now the mainstream media is trolling the Internet for the next example of underwriting attempting to save a few bucks.


This is another reason why corporations shouldn’t hire on the cheap for social media professionals. The youthful may be inexpensive. They’re also inexperienced in a crisis.

Published by

Michael Cheek

With more than 20 years of communication experience, Michael Cheek offers solid marketing expertise, especially in the digital frontier. He currently resides in Georgia but he's open to relocate anywhere the opportunities take him. Learn more at http://MichaelCheek.com. You can follow him on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/MichaelCheek and see more about his professional experience at http://LinkedIn.com/in/MichaelCheek. Reach him via e-mail at mcheek@gmail.com.

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