what can we learn from balloon boy?

Viral Marketing Gone Wrong, or Horribly Right?

Like all too many people, the afternoon and early evening hours of October 15th, I was rather worried and obsessed about the status of the Balloon Boy situation.

Hey, there is a 6 year old kid floating in a homemade balloon over Colorado!”

The earliest utterances of a co-worker in the office (who picked it up on Facebook from a friend posting it) became an afternoon of fitting in work between refreshing my Twitter search feed and resulted in channel hopping when I was home and close to the news channels.

As a mother of two troublesome children only slightly older than Balloon Boy, I could relate all too well to the panic and worry that this own parents could have (would have / should have) been experiencing. I bristled when people criticized their parenting on Twitter because really; the two kids were only playing in their own yard and that the yard had a filled homemade space balloon was only slightly odd. I tried to ignore the calls of a publicity stunt for either Disneys “Up” Movie or the Wife Swap show; after all, if real, then the child could have really been in harm’s way and this story could have had a fatal and tragic ending.

And while the Michael Jackson Joke was funny, I would NOT laugh until I knew Balloon Boy wasn’t dead after falling out of the balloon. I was genuinely happy that he was only asleep in a box in his attic and, like many, assumed that the poor kid knew he was in trouble for letting Daddy’s weird balloon go and was afraid of the mess he produced.

Looking like the Great Balloon Boy Hoax of 2009

And now, like so many again; I am feeling angry and resentful over the true emotional concern I felt for that little 6 year old boy. I can say that I sure don’t blame Balloon Boy himself even if it IS a hoax as. In fact, I would not have blamed him if it all was true and he was in the space balloon floating over Colorado. Again, I wouldn’t have even blamed the parents if it was true and it ended badly. I’m not pleased that it IS looking like a hoax after Falcon admitted on a CNN interview that “it was for a show”

Why? Who thought it was a good idea to pretend that the child was lost in a balloon over Colorado? For what ultimate viral gain was this story produced? Wife Swap Views? Personal notoriety? Space Balloon Orders? Alien Attention?

If it was a viral hoax then what was the intended goal?

The Backlash of Being Virally Duped Might Get Ugly Indeed

The Balloon Boy Hoax, still, essentially worked more than perfectly in a natural viral capacity:

  • Denver’s 9News Web site increased from an average one million per day to 4.6 million.
  • Twitter became Balloon Boy Central with lots of prayers and wished, plus the tasteless jokes and true hoax speculations and many folks say “WTF is #balloonboy
  • Responsible for hundreds of thousand of YouTube views and more are still coming!
  • There are, of course, Balloon Boy T-shirts.
  • We all know about the original Wife Swap episode and the 100th episode revisit and I would bet that they will re-run it very soon and the overall views will be much higher than normal even if people only watch to hate on them. I do wish I had looked at the Wife Swap site yesterday morning before it all started to see if the Henne Family was positioned front and center as they are now. Maybe they were because they were deemed “as one of America’s four favorite families”. Now, alas, I think they might be among the most mocked and scorned.
  • The various news channels did follow our obsessive lead and give us non-stop news and conjectures about the Balloon boy whereabouts.
  • My guess is that BalloonBoy.com , a true balloon company in Belgium, is really quite happy too. Surprisingly enough, quite a few “BalloonBoy” domain names are still open and can be bought. I guess after this Hoax thing, the demand is less today than yesterday.

All over the world, the story spread and whether people either cared, mocked, prayed or laughed; we made it clear that Balloon Boy was important to us on a Thursday afternoon.

Why Did We All Care About Balloon Boy and Make it Go Viral?

Over at the SMX East Conference last week in NYC, we discussed viral marketing and the one thing that all the experts agreed on is that you can’t “make” something go viral. It’s like a natural phenomenon. You can plan a campaign, you can see the target markets, but after that; it’s up to the content and the fickled amusement of the internet world. In fact, one of the many pages of notes that I have from the conference is a list of what appeals to the YouTube markets and what kinds of video garner the millions of views. According to industry experts and probably easily agreed to by anyone who bothers watching enough You Tube, to get the massive hits a video should have:

  • Amazing and unbelievable stunts
  • People getting big injuries
  • Really creepy cats
  • Someone kicking or hurling a baby
  • A freak accident
  • An explosion
  • Kids behaving badly, usually under the influence of Drugs or alcohol
  • Dancing: either really badly or amazingly well

Following that criteria, the Balloon Boy story has met enough true viral criteria; amazing stunt, freak accident, and kids behaving badly and strongly hinted at the possibility of other viral attractions; big injuries and maybe an explosion? We were all hooked. We cared about Falcon Henne. That’s a good thing. If it was truly what it seemed to be and that little boy was trapped in a balloon, then all the well wishes and prayers for his well being would have been good.

It just doesn’t make sense that an impossibly planned and horribly tasteless hoax such as Balloon Boy with no obvious intended goal really happened the way it seemed too. I’m still not sure. I wasn’t sure yesterday and I am still not sure now.

I do think that anyway the story pans out, the Henne Family will be judged, mocked, criticized and affected for quite some time..whether they deserve it or not.

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