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Boaty McBoatface: Six lessons on managing viral publicity



Opinions expressed in this article are my own and may not reflect those of my employer.

For all the planning and strategy that goes behind a digital marketing campaign, publicity is very often unexpected - as is the case with NERC's Boaty McBoatface conundrum.

For those who haven't been following the story - a public competition to name a environmental research vessel has left the UK's Natural Environmental Research Council with a dilemma when the name "Boaty McBoatface" rose to the top of the poll.

As a follow-up to my comments in The Guardian "Boaty McBoatface may not be name of new polar research vessel" on the 18th April and on Sky News on the 10th May I wanted expand with my six lessons on managing and maximising viral publicity.

1. Don't slam the door "All publicity is good publicity" ...(certain celebrities seeking UK injunctions on stories about their private lives may disagree)... but for an organization like NERC, Boaty McBoatface is a once in a generation opportunity to build interest and engagement in the work they do. With a story that is based in good humour, slamming the door shut risks not only ending the media interest but also alienating the hundred thousand people who took the time to vote for Boaty McBoatface. When a media story takes an unexpected path, rather than rushing into a defensive position, assess the options. Risk isn't all negative - it's also about not seizing opportunity.

2. Understand the full opportunity and seize it Viral news stories elicit a strong emotion - usually happiness and/or humour which tend to outperform anger (which is shorter lived reactionary emotion).

As per my comments in The Guardian, Boaty McBoatface offers NERC an opportunity to play along with the coverage and enhance the publics understanding and engagement with the work they do. With the adventures of Tim Peake in space, science is suddenly cool - both for children and the young at heart - NERC have a great opportunity to educate the public perhaps with a cartoon series detailing the science, research vessels, career opportunities etc...and public engagement and a higher profile is unlikely to do their future funding any harm.

3. Do the maths - where is the traction coming from? Viral content isn't something new, but the way we consume it has changed in the past five years with the emergence of digital publishers like Buzzfeed and The LADBible which understand content for the digital and social media age. When managing or maximising a story it's important to understand the data - where's the traction coming from, which platforms (social, mobile etc) are performing, who are the audience driving engagement and what do they want to hear about next - how do you give the story 'legs'.

4. We're still fascinated by social media - capitalize on name checks In the same way that mentioning Apple or Google in a tech story elicits readers to click, so does the concept of viral stories and the power of social media.

Whilst it's nothing new, the mainstream media remain in awe of Facebook and Twitter's ability to send a story viral - in many cases the 'virality' is more of a story than the story itself.

5. Obsess over the story I mentioned giving a story legs - so build an engine with the ability to dictate what comes next. With Boaty McBoatface, the initial story of the poll and the name was followed by the mainstream press covering that the story had gone viral. This was then followed by the journalist who proposed the name expressing his regret, and then a fresh story about NERC potentially using a get out line in the small print to 'veto' Boaty... why create a one-off story when you can get six stories for the price of one!

6. Think visually We all understand the power of images (thanks to Ferdinand) and a strong emotive or mental image can capture the publics attention. The moment I heard the name Boaty McBoatface I had a mental image of a Thomas the Tank Engine character...the story had a likeable personality at the heart of it. Viral stories elicit emotional connections and great visual images and video fuel social media content consumption.

Those are my quick six tips - as always, I'm interested in your thoughts and feedback.


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