Blog - Written by on Monday, July 20, 2009 10:00

Mashable: Five Ways Companies Used News Trends for Business Success

David Spark (@dspark) is the founder of Spark Media Solutions, specialists in building industry voice through storytelling and social media. He blogs at The Spark Minute and can be seen and heard regularly on Cranky Geeks, KQED, and ABC Radio.

Wouldn’t it be great if your company was as big a news story as Michael Jackson or maybe the Presidential election? Making yourself that popular is possible if you can somehow figure out a way to insert your business into that hot news story.

Traditional advertising is a drastic form of manipulation. It, like this paragraph, interrupts an audience’s current mindset and asks them to pay attention to you the moment they see and hear your advertisement.

Instead of trying to force the public to shift their thinking, companies are making the shift with their product, story, or marketing message just to ride the wave of current trends. Such is the case with the following five companies who saw an opportunity to connect their business with some big news story or hot meme, and then they capitalized on it.

1. Financial deception brings friends together
In the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal, mobile game developer Cellufun created a cell phone game called “Made Off” where aspiring Madoffs recruit their friends to invest Cellufun’s virtual currency in each other’s Ponzi schemes. To ensure quick recognition, Cellufun ran on-deck advertisements with their carrier partners.

While designed to be silly, be forewarned that making comical content so close to a tragedy is rarely wise. Many people are still hurting and may not find such a game funny. Often, making games or jokes around tragedies works if you let some time pass. For example, Call of Duty successfully mimics World War II, while video game attempts at the Iraq war have been flops or stirred way too much controversy.

Regardless of obvious warnings, the tongue-in-cheek Madoff hook worked. Many media outlets, such as Fox News and ABC News Now, picked up the game as a news story. The comical bent on the financially tragic story obviously humored many people as “Made Off” became Cellufun’s most popular game to date. In two weeks, 25,000 people downloaded and joined the game of which 40% spent real money to purchase FunCoins which give players additional capabilities such as attracting new investors, explained Keith Katz, Cellufun’s VP of marketing.

Even though they designed the game to be cutthroat, users were so accustomed to cooperative play that they refused to play ruthlessly. Katz said he saw a lot of customers with blog posts that said, “Invest in my fund and I’ll RTF” (RTF is “return the favor” in Celluspeak). While shocked with the game’s cooperative play, Cellufun is still very happy with the outcome.

Expect more culturally hip games from Cellufun in the future, said Katz, “Because our production team is so nimble, we can quickly seize upon events that have struck a cultural nerve and build a game or application around it that our users will respond to. We’ll continue to do this moving forward.”

2. If the government won’t give you a stimulus package, we will
The economy is hurting everyone, especially the tourism industry. Why spend money on frivolous holidays when you have more critical needs? That’s the common thinking, but Eric Garvey, Senior Marketing Director for Georgia’s Jekyll Island Authority, a visitor’s bureau for the family resort spot, wanted to change that common thinking.

Last month the Jekyll Island Authority launched an advertising campaign that argued, “Memories won’t wait for an economic recovery.” Time is passing by and even if you think you can’t afford a vacation, you have to figure out a way to do it.

To entice people to come to the island, the Jekyll Island Authority is offering a stimulus package with $200 worth of passes to island attractions, if visitors promise to share their Jekyll Island memories – photos, videos, and stories – on the Jekyll Island Facebook Page.

The promotion has been very successful, with more than 100 people signing up for Jekyll Island vacations. The Facebook Page has also become very active, swelling from 300 fans in May to close to 1,900 today. The visitor’s bureau is beginning to make some inroads into Twitter (@Jekyll_Island), but right now are finding that more visitors are congregating around photos and memories on Facebook.

For people who would in the past only go to Jekyll Island’s beach, the escape passes are tempting them to explore other aspects they wouldn’t necessarily experience such as tours of the historic district, golf, The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, and the Summer Waves water park.

3. When a big news story creates scarcity that you can alleviate (formerly known as AirBed & Breakfast) dubs itself the “eBay of space.” It’s a listing service that lets people or businesses rent out their extra space to travelers by the night. It’s a risky notion since most people first look for hotels and rental properties when they travel. They often don’t even consider a service such as And most people only pull out their airbed when friends come over. They don’t think to rent it out by the day.

That lack of consideration of’s listing service completely changed with the housing shortage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Demand of filling the 80,000 seat Invesco Field severely outstripped Denver’s already sold out supply of 30,000 hotel rooms. The lack of places to stay created national news, and was there to deliver a well-timed solution. Having yet to officially launch, the DNC and the subsequent housing shortage story generated substantial press and brand awareness for

The same housing crunch story repeated itself again, but at a larger scale for Obama’s Presidential Inauguration. This time there were a million people coming to DC and definitely not enough hotel rooms in DC or nearby Philadelphia.

To get the buzz going, started conversing with blogs and then moved to local television and newspapers in Denver and DC. Once they had enough supply they targeted national press and Obama groups to get the word out nationally. got coverage on CNN, The Today Show, E! News, CBC, Conde Nast Portfolio, and Mashable. And for an extra hook, they created a fake cereal called Obamaos with its own catchy little song, and sold the cereal on their site.

For both events, hundreds of local Denver and DC residents listed their properties on, resulting in hundreds of booked reservations. The DNC and the Inauguration generated thousands of dollars of revenue for a just-out-of-the-gate startup. They also made a nice chunk of change selling 1,000 Obamaos for $40 a box which have now become collectors’ items on eBay currently selling for over $300 a box.

4. When a story is hot, people want to talk about it
Laura Hale runs the Fan History Wiki, an editable site that covers the history of fandom. By its nature, it tracks all entertainment stories, even the hot trending ones. In an effort to improve traffic, the wiki has been trying to capitalize on some bigger entertainment news stories (e.g. Michael Jackson and Jon and Kate Plus 8) and niche stories (e.g. Race Fail 2009).

But what really makes the site thrive is contributions. And the desire to contribute to Fan History Wiki is not just a function of traffic. For example, Hale’s wiki will get mentions on other sites such as Fandom Wank. The recognition brings in huge spikes in traffic that don’t translate into any noticeable increase in site contributions or conversions.

But for these three big stories, Hale actively promoted them throughout the fandom blogosphere. She believes what drives Fan History Wiki’s traffic is they’re able to pick up on aspects of stories that the mainstream media miss. For example, in the case of the King of Pop, she saw a marked increase in traffic of people looking for Michael Jackson fan fiction.

Hale noticed when promoting these hot news stories, when people are all a buzz and talking a lot about the issues, they need a place to vent. Fan History Wiki gives people an opportunity to express pent up frustration and excitement through a live editable document. The call out works. During hot trending stories such as Michael Jackson and Jon and Kate plus 8, contributions increased as much as 50 percent, even though traffic only increased 5 percent.

New wiki editors are Hale’s most desirable traffic as those users have the highest conversion rates. They end up returning, reading, and contributing more.

5. When a movie’s audience is identical to your business’ audience
When the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You” came out, it inspired J.T. O’Donnell, founder of the Gen Y career site, CAREEREALISM, to write a blog post entitled, “Why HR’s Just Not That Into You.”

Riding the relationship themes of the movie, O’Donnell created parallels to the world of connecting with business’ human resources departments. O’Donnell believed the article played well for a number of reasons:

– The demographics of the movie and her site, 18-40, were the same.
– Even if you hadn’t read the book or seen the movie, if you were in that age group, you knew what it was about.
– The book/movie title are sarcastic and memorable.
– Career coaches often refer to a job search being like dating.
– The 18-40 age group is being impacted the most by the current recession and they’re bitter and confused about it.

Thanks to retweeting and blog reposting, CAREEREALISM’s Technorati ranking and Google page rankings jumped considerably. The result was a 40 percent traffic boost for that week, with that dropping down to a continuing 10 percent overall increase in traffic. That jump in traffic translated into increased business with a string of advertising requests, professionals asking if they could guest blog, and a spike in sales of the CAREEAREALISM guidebook. Plus, the increased requests for career coaching help, prompted the launch of CAREEREALISM University, a private career network that teaches members how to execute an effective job search, O’Donnell said.

“Using the news as a foundation to write a post gave us some intense results that helped us understand and improve what we do at It was a very valuable learning experience that has since helped us further define our approach with readers,” said O’Donnell.

Conclusion: How can you capitalize on the latest trend?
By shifting your company’s messaging and storytelling to the current news and trends, you’re feeding off of existing editorial work that has already proven to attract attention. To successfully take advantage of huge news stories and hot memes for your business, ask yourself three questions:

1. What’s the public talking about?
2. What’s your relevant take on the issue?
3. Can that viewpoint somehow be connected to your business?

Has your business ever capitalized on a hot news story or meme? Or maybe another company did it and you were so very impressed. If so, I’d love to hear the story.

For more analysis on how your business can capitalize on hot trends, I’ve written a step-by-step guide on how to ride the wave of a hot meme.


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