Cheezburger’s Ben Huh on Viral Snake Oil

Ben Huh is an Internet pioneer. He popularized the Internet meme of drawing funny, misspelled captions on cute cat photos, called LOLcats, using it as the basis of his media company Cheezburger. Its sites include Failblog and The Daily What. Cheezburger recently closed a $30 million round of venture funding in order to build “a media company for the digital age.” Huh spoke to Digiday about why “generic media” is doomed, the trouble with viral campaigns, and why brands shouldn’t be afraid of their customers.

What’s the recipe for success for a modern media company?
What you’re seeing is a flight to the poles. You’ve got guys like us who generate a huge audience like Google, Facebook, Twitter. They’re the most influential media companies in the world and none of them produce their own content. They rely on scale to make their businesses run. Then you’ve got focused players who dominate a small market that has high margins, like TechCrunch. You dominate in a smaller focus. The Internet destroyed the monopoly barrier of local information. Local newspapers ran the same AP wire stories 100 others ran. They gave it a slightly different angle with a different headline and called it a day. That doesn’t work anymore. People are looking for differentiated media. Generic media has suffered the most. That’s why you see the rise of partisan media and websites. They’re a differentiated view from what we’re used to. You need to have a point of view. That’s very important.
Why do people share things online? What motivates them?
People have an innate desire to see other people happy and receive social benefit in the process. It’s the same reason we donate money to charities. When I see something funny and pass it along, I build credibility about someone with a valuable sense of humor. That hasn’t changed since the dawn of media. It’s the same reason why people tell great stories. It helps reinforce the goodness of humanity. The far larger diversity of content people can access today is opening people’s eyes to making people laugh. Twenty years ago you could watch a show and make reference to it. Now we’ve made media more portable, and that allows people to share, remix and create something more valuable than the original.
I’m struck by how passing along something like a lolcats photo means people don’t themselves have to be funny to come across as funny. Ninety-five percent of people aren’t that funny.
You don’t actually need to have an original sense of humor. Social media is allowing us to be better matchmakers. You say 95 percent of people aren’t funny, but it’s very situational. In given situations, we don’t have funny things to say. But when I see something that would be funny to my friends, I recognize that. We’re all innately good at this pattern recognition.
Marketers still try to launch “viral” campaigns. Is this a fool’s errand?
I feel in many ways viral campaigns are the snake oil of the advertising industry. I can remember few viral campaigns that were successful, meaning I recognize the brand. The vast majority of viral tries to carry a brand with some piece of media that’s shocking in some way. But I never recognize the brand. Marketers should open their concept of engagement and get people to participate in the process. It’s not about catching the most eyeballs for the lowest price. There’s an audience that’s saturated and tired of advertising in its traditional form. What they’re looking for is participation with the brand. Give them the freedom to hack the brand, the media and express it. That’s what creates positive association.
What’s your biggest frustration with advertising? 
A lot of advertisers still fear their users. They’re afraid of what they’ll do and that their brand will show up next to something that’s kind of offensive. There’s a lot of fear of being next to what users are doing. It’s frustrating because that’s where they need to be. People spend more time next to things people create than they do next to professional media. Some smart brand will understand this and engage the audience and not be afraid of being next to something someone created in their five minutes of spare time.  I’m sure in a matter of time this will become standard practice.

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