In launching BarelyPolitical.com, founder Ben Relles wanted to establish the site as a place for cutting-edge political humor.
He wanted to jump-start the site's launch by creating a viral video with a character people would be interested in and a storyline that could be extended.
"One day, it just hit me," Relles says, "[that] if we did a video about Barack Obama, this being the [cycle] that a lot of people are calling the YouTube election, we could be one of the first videos that... proves that an individual can actually become part of the political conversation through a YouTube video."
The result was "I Got a Crush on Obama," a music video satire in which a girl professes her love for the presidential candidate.
Relles called on LaunchSquad for help with PR.
"With BarelyPolitical.com, we wanted to make the videos both episodic and tell a story, and this is just one story on the site, which is this idea of various females who are inclined to support various candidates," explains Relles. "So the idea was to make this storyline something we'd keep fresh and original, but still bring back a lot of the same characters."
Using the video as a hook, LaunchSquad wanted to build the site's brand and position Relles as a thought leader in the political and digital media spaces.
The idea was to let the video spread virally and, once it started gaining traction, leverage that for attention from the media.
"In any sort of viral campaign... the authenticity is what makes it important," says Melissa Klein, LaunchSquad account manager. "Putting out press releases is not what a viral campaign is about, so I was very hands-off in the beginning because we wanted people to enjoy it on their own and really find it for themselves."
Adds Relles, "Part of what made this video successful was people got to find out a lot more about the backstory on their own."
The team posted the video on the site and YouTube. It first targeted political bloggers, but the story spread to mainstream outlets.
"There's this conception that new media [coverage is driven by] new media, [but] mainstream media plays a very important role," says Klein. "ABC News broke the story, and part of our tactic was going to other bloggers... and saying, 'Check out ABC's story.'"
She adds: "There was no person that didn't write something that we didn't respond to their blog. We were very quick to open up a dialogue with everyone."
The team set up a MySpace page and a blog for Obama Girl, Amber Lee Ettinger, to interact with others. It also set up a Web page with the backstory on the video.
The team launched a follow-up video, "Debate '08: Obama Girl vs. Giuliani Girl," a month later.
"I Got a Crush on Obama" received 3.8 million YouTube views with close to 5 million more views on various other video players. The follow-up video got equal attention and similar coverage.
"I think it surpassed everybody's initial goals in terms of what an online video could do from a PR standpoint," says Relles.
Coverage included The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Economist, People, ABC News, Al Jazeera, CNN, The View, The Huffington Post, and AOL Latina. Media impressions totaled hundreds of millions, says Klein.
Relles has since been invited to speak at numerous conferences, including Digital Hollywood and Forbes MEET conference, as an expert on viral videos.
BarelyPolitical.com and LaunchSquad continue to work together, and the site will keep creating extensions of the characters.
Most recently, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America partnered with the site to raise awareness for support of veterans using a video, called "I Like a Boy," featuring Obama Girl and Giuliani Girl.
PR team: BarelyPolitical.com (New York) and LaunchSquad (San Francisco)
Campaign: Obama Girl
Duration: May 2007-ongoing
Budget: Less than $25,000
The key action of this effort was the initial inaction. Giving the video time to circulate before promoting it was crucial to establishing its authenticity. Relles and Klein both knew that "viral" today no longer means something spread friend-to-friend; rather blogs act as content spreaders. Using the ABC story as a hook to generate interest helped drive the millions of views and media impressions. And the strategy from the start of creating something beyond just a video guided the follow-up videos and additional content that have kept the story going.