Then the pizzas arrived. Ten of them, from a local place that delivers gluten-free pies. I was surprised, which is exactly the outcome Comcast was after.
In marketing, conventional wisdom holds that small surprises can yield a big benefit for a limited cost, especially if they go viral. Marketers have a name for Comcast’s pizza-delivery stunt: a strategy of “surprise and delight.”
About 15 years ago, before Twitter existed, companies paid agencies for “guerrilla” and “buzz” marketing; the agencies would surreptitiously seed conversations about the companies in chat rooms and on message boards, and report back on the sentiments they saw there. Then the social platforms arrived: Blogger, Myspace, YouTube, and others.
That’s what spawned the new social-media-management economy. Around 2010, when the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling reinforced the breadth and power of corporate personhood in America, businesses started developing online personalities. Now almost every brand is a #brand too. Spend enough time perusing corporations’ social accounts, and you’ll start to see distinct personas emerge: Wendy’s is catty; Arby’s is geeky; Charmin is, well, cheeky. This shift has ushered in a whole new job category. Companies employ social-media managers and online-content specialists to trawl Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms, looking for opportunities to engage—a favorite word of online advertisers—or in my case, to send pizza. (Because I sometimes cover issues related to Comcast for The Atlantic, I gave away as many of the pizzas as I could and reimbursed Comcast for the cost.)
It’s not just the big fish like Comcast. Steak-umm is a family-owned company based in Reading, Pennsylvania, that sells frozen sliced beef for making Philly cheesesteaks at home. I ate the beef occasionally in the 1980s, but I’d forgotten about it until I noticed the company on Twitter several years ago. At the time, it seemed ridiculous that a frozen-beef producer would be there at all. Still, I followed the account. Then, last year, I received a direct message asking me, personally, to share a Change.org petition advocating for Steak-umm’s account to receive the blue check mark that indicates an account has been verified by Twitter.
Steak-umm’s marketing team, I later learned, was trying to recruit followers and fans by casting the verification campaign as a Rust Belt underdog story: a regional frozen-beef company versus social-media hotshots like Wendy’s. The team told me that it had started by enlisting a few comedians and mid-tier celebrities who had mentioned Steak-umm on Twitter. But the process for reaching people like me was more sophisticated. Using a software service called Crimson Hexagon, Nathan Allebach, who manages Steak-umm’s social-media accounts, was able to home in on the geographic locations, interests, and social-media-usage patterns common to the younger audience Steak-umm hoped to connect with on Twitter. The software identified gaming, a sector I work in, as one of those interests—which made me a compelling target. (Many people singled out by brands on Instagram or Twitter may not know how they came to a company’s attention. Part of the answer is sophisticated software. Crimson Hexagon, for example, can identify objects and corporate logos in photos—a Pepsi T‑shirt, say, or a Mr. Coffee coffee maker in the background—enabling companies to discover what someone owns or uses even if the person doesn’t tag a brand.)