Lessons from the surprising viral success of a T-shirt

In this disastrous economy, our research demonstrates that individuals are desperate for community feeling.

In this disastrous economy, our research demonstrates that individuals are desperate for community feeling. People, especially young people, want to be a part of something. If possible, they especially want to be part of something that makes them unique, cool, or interesting. As such, they are looking for products that on the one hand set them apart, but, on the other hand, are choice-affirming by the nature of the community that surrounds the product. As the recent Three Wolf T-shirt phenomenon demonstrates, the Internet is a powerful tool to accomplish both objectives. That said, most “normal” viral phenomena don't involve money changing hands. So, why was the 3WM T-shirt able to briefly claw its way to the top of the best-selling retail item list on Amazon.com?

No participation, no community
Only authentic communities – those defined by a specific world-view/sensibility and some sort of participatory activity – have the potential to sell products. Whether it is a sports team or a political party, our identity as a member of community is defined by the degree of our participation. The same is true online. In the case of 3WM, the key participatory act was not buying the shirt (or even wearing it), but posting comments about it.

Subversive is good
People who help propagate trends often do so if they feel that the mere act of spreading the word and being “in on the joke” challenges socially accepted norms. In the case of the 3WM, the spoofing of product reviews and the ability to wear the object of derision as an emblem of subversion became an outlet for individuality and a shared cultural experience at the same time.

Humor is not the whole story
Virtually everything that has gone viral has, in some way, been funny. That said, the role of humor in the 3WM phenomenon is not, in and of itself, critical to its success. “Funny” campaigns are effective because they serve to develop a quasi-secret fraternity (in short, a community) – not simply because they are entertaining.

No corporate branding
While the item and review did sit on a major corporate entity's site, Amazon never pushed the item or quoted the review in advertising, and the person who produced the key review was just some guy from Jersey. 3WM had the feeling of being ‘found' or ‘discovered,' rather than announced or proclaimed.

The authors collaborating on the piece are Jeffrey Levine, Gotham Research Group; Mark Putnam, Murphy Putnam Media; and David Nassar, Blue State Digital

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