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FTW - zombie vertical post-mortem ( ha )

. Pete

Yesterday at the SHC Social Media Summit, kudos were given to the Zombie vertical effort pulled off by a rogue splinter faction of UX zealots. Let's talk about that for a moment.

First, some history. By some accounts, Sears is an international retailer with a rich history, but not as much modern zing as a brand might want. At least a brand who's stated goal is to sell lots of stuff to lots of people. We -do- all sorts of innovative things online, but that's probably not the public perception.

To lots of peeps Sears is still where you might go to buy your dishwasher, or where your mom goes, if your mom is as old as my mom. Which let's be honest is kind of old. "They've always been wonderful to me, Peter. Did you know that during The War they were the only place I could get kerosene?"

"The War"? Kerosene?

Anyway. Just before Halloween UX Sears released a little gem, a zombie vertical page aimed at servicing the zombie demographic for all their shopping needs.


Image-wise, this was kind of "a departure from the brand message" of the company that was able to bring you petroleum distillates during the Big One. It was also crazy successful. It's early in the day here, and I can't seem to find anyone here yet to get me some numbers, but with no advertising, on our test-test server that we're having "engagement challenges" on, no budget, and no work done during normal work hours, the effort had about a zillion media mentions... mainstream, web-nerd, and advertising industry venues.

Like I said, -crazy- successful. Why? Let's take a look.

7 Reasons the Zombie Vertical rocked

1. First: zombies Topically, this was a win. It's still a win, months later. The zombie thing still has juice. Lots here for everyone- the gaming enthusiast, the political satirist, the survivalist. Sometimes the stuff you sell lacks a certain panache... but who doesn't love zombies?

2. Soooooooo different. So different This is where a lot of the Magic Happened. "Zombies? Sears??" The incongruence of the brand and the idea, what was expected on the web and what we actually did and put out there for real normal people to see, this had a powerful effect. Word spread like, ahem, a virus. A zombie virus.

3. We weren't selling anything What? Nothing? Counterintuitive, but still kind of a wicked-powerful idea when used correctly. We didn't try to really sell anything on the page; it was clearly just for fun, and to play around with engagement ideas. This earns us a little buy in ( heh ) and credibility.

4. It was produced by a small group of zealots It seems like it's easier for a small, motivated group of slightly-off people to do amazing work than it is to get similar results from a humming, well-running and benefit-laden corporate organization. The people that did the zombie vert were on their own time, with their own equipment, and had only one ( albeit key ) executive champion. They weren't told to do this; it was an idea that some people came up with it and were allowed to run with. That authenticity came through at every level of the experience. The team was definitely "well versed in the vernacular of the genre," this burned through in every bit of the experience, and the people who were into zombies loved it, and helped carry word of it forward.

5. Word of mouth only We didn't put up a banner ad. Didn't get space in the circulars, or TV ad time. We really didn't tell the public at all. But we sure as hell told our friends. All of them, on Facebook and Twitter, and some other places. The singularly powerful sentiment of "hey, check this out..." from a loose-tie-friend echoed thousands of times is more effective than the most expensive advertisement campaign. People turned the downside of having no budget on its ear.

6. Smart, shareable, discoverable content Give people interesting stuff, stuff -designed- to be shared and talked about, and you have so much more of a chance of that actually happening. The idea "of course our stuff is awesome" generally, sadly, isn't enough... it has to actually -be- awesome. Also, within the zombie vert experience there was discoverable content, "easter eggs". This is huge, and is a technique for growing engagement that makes a lot of traditional marketing people nervous.

7. Management didn't kill it Not that they could because, well... ( wait for it... ) they're zombies! Bazinga! Very few people knew about this little opus before it exploded onto the interweb, but when it did the suits were calling and people started to get Very Nervous. But cooler heads ( or just Heads with More Political Clout ) prevailed and when traffic spiked and people we ( meaning SHC ) couldn't control were saying all these ( almost entirely positive ) things about our brand, we let it go. And go it went. Or something. It did well, and brought in a lot of traffic, and piqued a lot of interest.

Some interesting tidbits to consider:

Everyone loves a success If this failed to win, or worse brought some sort of negative attention to us, it'd be harder to leverage it FTW in the future. The fact that the zombie vert did so well went a long way to build a heaping spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of a "web experience that is decidedly off brand message an potentially harmful to us in the marketplace" go down.

Some business units were a little miffed "Why weren't we told?", "Why didn't we have input?", "Why did you feature -that- particular product?" and so on. Much win pretty much silenced these voices, but some of the risk in a project like this is that if you don't pay homage to the usual stakeholders and something goes well, they might be a little raw they didn't have input, or that you dared to do something without consulting them. If your effort tanks, these are the people who dance and pass out 2x4s at the ass-whooping party. In high school, they were the hall monitors, people who got perfect attendance, and ran for student council.

Followup would be cool. Engagement would be cool. A permission asset would be cool. I'm definitely not saying we should do another zombie thing. I -am- saying that it'd be cool to retain the eyeballs of the interested people who rushed to our site to see what was done, so that next time we can help make them part of the fun. I don't mean collecting their names to spam them, or send them a "heads up" to watch for something "new and exciting"... I mean make them part of it. Actually talking to these people, the ones that opt in somehow, is pretty important.

Train this team, for the Next Thing And there will be a Next Thing. The very net one might not be as popular, but developing this kind of skillset on your team is golden.

To sum up:

* Your subject matter might not be exciting, but you can talk about it in a sexy, exciting way. Do so.

* Do something people don't expect; play against your brand perception

* If your job is to sell something, take a break from that, and just give something away.

* Nurture the small band of zealots you have

* Don't advertise. If your idea is cool, it will fly on it's own. "Advertising" is lame.

* Design your content to be sharable; technically and with compelling excellence

* Give things room to breathe. when you have that first urge to take it down, don't.

And remember, when everyone else is out of kerosene, try Sears. It's a great tool for fighting zombies.

; )

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