Why Anybody Should Give a Damn About Things Like #alexfromtarget

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Now that we’re more than a generation deep in the Digital Revolution, we really shouldn’t be surprised to see some crazy thing spin out from the Internet. We won’t waste time regaling you with examples (if you want a walk down Internet-memory lane, turn to Complex), but we will remind you about the most important thing regarding crazy shit that spins out of the Internet: Wherever there is attention, there is money.

This is one of the basic principles of advertising. You can’t sell anything to anybody, you can’t get your brand in front of new people, if you don’t have their attention — or, in the case of most advertising, if you aren’t piggy-backing off the attention people are giving something else, like a TV show or a moving bus or an article on the Internet. This principle is why advertisers (read: a company with something to sell and money to spend) have jumped ravenously on social media. Social media, by definition, is where all the attention is — and importantly, it’s where all the engagement is happening.

All is an overstatement, but the advent of social media marketing and advertising has made conventional television, radio, and especially print media advertising look helplessly lame by comparison. Social media is richer, cheaper, more accessible, and generally a more effective channel of information than other, traditional media. This makes social media a much more interesting, if not a much more effective, way for companies to reach customers. Advertisers are spending more than ever and digital is taking an ever-larger share of that money. Of the $171.01 billion eMarketer estimates advertisers will spend in 2014, $32 billion will go to digital, about 19% of the total — by 2017, eMarketer estimates that share to rise to $61.4 billion out of $197 billion, about 31%.

Facebook is the quintessential example of a social media company, but it’s certainly not alone. An entire industry has been built at the intersection of IT, advertising, and the basic human urge to interact and share information. This intersection is already so busy that it’s gentrifying, but instead of property values skyrocketing it’s the premium on attention that’s increasing.

This is why when something like #alexfromtarget happens, everybody pays attention to it, whether they like it or not.

Again, everything is an overstatement, but when there is content out there with more than 2 billion views, the global village starts feeling much smaller. The nature of the Internet makes the potential audience for all content tremendous — ostensibly, it’s equal to the number of people using the Internet, 2.9 billion people. So when a piece of content starts rolling through the Internet like a social Katamari attracting torrents of attention, everyone in the ecosystem pays attention to it. This is how we get things like #alexfromtarget.

If you are not familiar with the hashtag, that’s OK. We’ve embedded the Twitter feed below, but unless you are naturally interested in negotiating the staccato world of meme-orbiting conversations, there’s nothing inherently valuable about the meme itself. Many in the media were quick to call #alexfromtarget a meme, which is fair. It’s part content (a picture), part hash tag, and totally ridiculous. It’s a social viral phenomenon, and we understand it about as well as we understand ball lightning.

But even though we don’t understand viral content very well — very few people are good at designing viral content or predicting which content will go viral — media and marketing companies do understand how valuable viral content can be. Probably better than anyone else, advertisers understand what could be gained from the savvy capitalization of a meme. A meme is a phenomenon of engagement, creation, and communication; it’s a phenomenon of attention, and every business in the media industry naturally wants a piece of it.

This is why we get everyone from CNN to ABCNews to The Orlando Sentinel writing about it as if the emergence of a meme is news — because, in fact, it is news, just the same way that a celebrity scandal or new movie is news. People, Main Street people, are paying attention to it, so the media is covering it and advertisers are trying to capitalize on it.

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