An Oprah Effect, named after talk show host Oprah Winfrey, is amplification of any idea, cultural trend or product by media.
When you do what I do for a living, manage large e-com web sites, you pray for Oprah Effects like farmers pray for rain. You don’t watch the sky. You watch daily order counts like seismologists watch earthquake needles. Watching order counts is voodoo. Wishing doesn’t make it so. Watching a needle doesn’t make it move. Most Oprah Effects are like tsunamis. They happen with little warning and they change everything.
What do you remember about 1996? The Olympic Games were in Atlanta. Bob Dole received the Republican nomination for President, a race he would lose to Bill Clinton. The Taliban took the city of Kabul and Alan Greenspan discussed irrational exuberance pin pricking the Internet bubble that would fully deflate by the year 2000.
I remember being at the International Gift Show (picture of the scrum that is the NY Gift Show at left) in August at the Javits Center in New York City and having a camera crew from Good Morning America interviewing David Kapell, the creator of Magnetic Poetry Kit, in the Found Objects booth. By August the water was three stories high and rising fast. A tsunami Oprah effect was happening to Magnetic Poetry Kit. What started the tidal wave that was that summer? What created the Oprah Effect that brought GMA to the party?
Oprah Effect Defined
Oprah Effects use media's extended reach and quick delivery to increase awareness of an idea, trend, fashion or product. When Poetryslam, a word game I created, was featured in the Raleigh News and Observer we experienced a minor Oprah Effect. When Katharine Graham gave Magnetic Poetry Kits to her influential friends at a dinner party we saw the water recede signaling a tsunami Oprah Effect. Oprah Effects may or may not “tip” an idea, trend or product. Oprah effects do not guarantee a product's ability to cross the chasm.
Marketing used to be perceived as a sequential game. When I sold bar soap for Procter and Gamble and candy for M&M/Mars we approached selling as a territorial game like football. We created and used sequential orderly strategies. We moved down the field. Our “invasions” required an army of “boots on the ground” sales people; grocery store slotting fees and special deals for Wal Mart. This game was about distribution not capturing hearts and minds. We thought “evangelists” preached in church and good marketing grew brands in linear ways related to our brilliant efforts (kidding of course). We didn’t market as much as we farmed: buy seed, plant seed, fertilize seed, harvest crop.
Then the world got full. Stores got full; an average grocery store has 50,000 products, double that if you are in a “Super Store.” Our minds got full; Americans see an estimated 600 to 3,000 “ads” per day. Our time got full, how much “free” time do you have now versus five years ago. I used to read fiction and go fishing not so much anymore. The ways to reach us splintered and then filled up. Remember, and this really dates me, when there were four television channels, no Internet and hearing your favorite song on the radio was a big deal?
Intense competition directed at cynical people who’ve been munching on diets of over 1,000 ads per day with no time, little free mental bandwidth, eroding loyalty and a Do-It-Yourself mindset means the game has changed. Distribution matters little if no one cares about your product. If a tree falls in this ultra-crowded forest there may only be the sound of millions of dollars being sucked down the “fruitless marketing” toilet. Your tree, or your brand, may go back to mulch in the time it took me to write this sentence.
Some back-of-the-envelope calculations put the number of ads between age 10 and 50 north of 14,000,000 (1,000 ads per day X 14,600 days). If you think you will create an ad so creative it breaks through your customer’s well honed filters, filters that can smell an ad like our cave dwelling ancestors could smell a meal, then you are nuts. We’ve seen 14,000,000 ads. Take your ad money and head to Vegas. You will get better odds.
Where and when do Oprah Effects start?
A common mistake is to think an Oprah Effect resulted from things that happened immediately before the event. This is RARELY the case. An Oprah Effect has a long tail. No one creates a widget, calls Oprah’s production staff on the phone says, “Oprah my cool widget is ready for your show, when will we be on?” Oprah Effects are media amplifications of existing viral marketing.
How and where you start viral marketing matters. Luckily Found Objects co-founder Janet McKean ran the gift shop at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago before we started Found Objects. Janet’s network of buyer friends from other museum stores purchased the first Magnetic Poetry Kits. Funky gifts need funky stores. Take Magnetic Poetry Kit to Wal Mart and Katherine Graham doesn’t give words on magnets to her smart friends setting off a massive Oprah Effect. Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Eckert Tolle says everything is as it is supposed to be and David Kapell’s call to Found Objects is an example of magical coincidence.
Oprah Effects start with what you name your product and the first people (or stores) that talk about (or sell) it. Few think about how a distribution choice will influence a product’s future. Slap up a web page, head to Bentonville Arkansas or hire a showroom at the Merchandise Mart and you are good to go right, maybe and maybe not. Distribution is destiny. By lucky accident Magnetic Poetry Kit took the first steps to an Oprah Effect when the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (they were already in) and the MCA in Chicago listened to Janet’s over-the-phone pitch and trusted her enough to buy 12 Magnetic Poetry Kits each. Janet’s initial call to just the right distribution partners meant in four years millions would have magnetic words on their refrigerators. Call Wal Mart, or a better example Barnes and Noble, at this early point and you might never had heard of Magnetic Poetry Kits.
In his massively important and influential book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell discusses how Hush Puppies became “cool” with club kids in New York. Those "cool" kids' influence stretched beyond their immediate group. The trend got noticed, written about (i.e. amplified) and tipped. Put words on magnets on refrigerators in high design households and rapid transmission of the Magnetic Poetry Kit “meme” is a certainty. Where do we gather when we visit friends? If you answered their kitchen I owe you a Magnetic Poetry Kit. Extend placement on cool refrigerators in influential homes and see the first sparks of an Oprah Effect that would eventually reach millions. Here is a play-by-play:
- Hip Screen Writer goes into Museum of Contemporary Art to see Pop Art show.
- Stops in the museum shop and buys 5 Magnetic Poetry Kits to give to friends.
- Those 5 Friends buy 5 kits to give to friends.
- One of those friends is a set designer and decides to place Magnetic Poetry Kit on a fridge in a movie (this happened all the time and during our tenure as the exclusive sales representative NO add placement money was paid - designers did it because they loved the product).
- Friends in other parts of the country visit LA, see Magnetic Poetry Kit on their cool friend’s fridge. They return home and look for kits. They buy five and give to five friends creating another viral node.
Why did Katherine Graham give Magnetic Poetry (MPK) to dinner party guests?
Wake Up Little Suzie, an influential Connecticut Avenue gift store in Washington, DC., is an important link in the long tail of MPK’s Oprah Effect. Wake Up Little Suzie is funky, cool and reflects the quirky buying patterns of its owner (one of her store windows is on the left). Wake Up Little Suzie was one of the first non-museum stores in the country to sell Magnetic Poetry Kit. How hard do you think the owner of Wake Up Little Suzie had to “sell” the owner of the Washington Post words on magnets? The owner of the Washington Post bought every kit Susan had. A week after Ms. Graham gives MPK as gifts her “living” section editor features MPK on the cover of the weekend section. Susan was sold out. She took people’s names and they waited patiently as she placed an order for over 1,000 kits. Before that order arrived, we had another order for a thousand more.
The Washington Post mention did much more than wipe out Magnetic Poetry Kits in every store in Washington for several weeks. That Lifetime cover story alerted the rest of the media. One day not long ago I was fishing for small mouth bass in the Susquehanna river near Scranton, Pennsylvania. On a large leafless tree sat close to fifty buzzards. Several buzzards stretched and dried their wings in the sun. All of them watched every step I took. Media act like those buzzards. They sit, dry their wings and wait. When a respected member of their flock finds a story they have to join. Left out is dead.
An important attribute of media flock psychology is the fear of being left out is greater than the desire to find something new. Scopes are great but hard to come by, but being the 100th on a story is career suicide and not acceptable. First is risky and last is unacceptable. Feeding frenzies happen when some untouchable outlet such as the Washington Post stamps a trend “approved”. ABC was setting up that interview within days after the Post article dropped.
Remember to work backwards from the Oprah Effect. The first museum stores start the buzz train. The owner of Wake Up Little Suzie, who has great radar for new trends, hears about the trend when several customers ask her for a product called Magnetic Poetry Kit. She goes to the International Gift Show looking for MPK. Wake Up Little Suzie becomes one of the first gift stores not located in a museum to sell the product. Several years go by. Each year buzz grows along with David’s ability to produce large numbers of kits. More stores like Wake Up Little Suzie start to sell Magnetic Poetry Kit.
Distribution, creation of buzz and tipping a trend are inextricably linked. Recent examples prove the point. If you own a Wii you are blessed and may have stood in a long line. Go through that much work and not tell five friends about your purchase – of course not. Go through much more work and not get a WII? Then you get angry and tell five friends about why Wiis stink.
There were several competitive products to Magnetic Poetry Kit. One was called Fridge Fun and the other was named something equally uninteresting. Several stores, Wake Up Little Suzie among them, sold all three products. Again, work back from the Oprah Effect. David Kapell names his product Magnetic Poetry Kit. That name had risks. Not everyone loves poetry, but the people who hold the power of transmission, the Katherine Grahams, love poetry. A product named "Fridge Fun" is harder to sell to museum stores. Magnetic Poetry Kit sounds like art. "Fidge Fun" does not. David’s original Bauhaus-simple box design, logo and label fed the art museum store market.
David found Janet and Found Objects serendipitously. He asked the Walker Arts Center Store Manager who should help sell his creation. Janet, freshly out of the museum world, calls her friends running stores like the one she just left. She raves about this new gift and makes the first sales of David’s creation. The necessity of filling those orders kept box design simple. The storm that would become an overwhelming Oprah Effect was born in David’s garage, Janet’s phone calls to just the right people, Magnetic Poetry Kit’s perfect name, a simple box design and Katherine Graham’s visit to Wake Up Little Suzie several years later.
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Have you lived through an Oprah Effect? What triggered your Oprah Effect? Please share your experience and ideas.