How a “Little Crappy Theater” Set a New Standard for Social Media Marketing Strategy

by Eddie Reeves on June 19, 2011

Note: This post also appears in my column in the fifth edition of Social Media Marketing Magazine.

The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin recently ignited a social tsunami when it kicked out a patron for violating its 14-year-old policy of zero tolerance for talking or texting during its screenings. The irate young woman left a profanity-laced voicemail message, excoriating the movie house for enforcing the very rule for which it is best known and best loved by its customers.

The theater’s honchos responded with one of the best maneuvers in the history of brand marketing: they converted the rant into an in-theater PSA that they then showed before all their R-rated films and posted on YouTube. (WARNING: You can check out the video on YouTube, but be advised that it is not suitable for the workplace nor children).

The response was stunning …

Within 24 hours, the video had gone viral, garnering more than 250,000 views. That brought it to the attention of the mainstream media, with popular shows like CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” and ABC’s “The View” highlighting it, along with dozens of blogs, some of them quite influential. That in turn drove even more traffic to the video, which eclipsed the three million-view mark and hit number one on Reddit in less than five days. My conservative estimate is that if you had to put an advertising dollar value on the buzz that the video has generated, you would certainly be well into eight figures.

So why did the Alamo Drafthouse story take wing? The truth is, no one can say with 100 percent certainty why some campaigns go viral and others don’t, but we do know the kinds of characteristics that make it much more likely. Here are a few of them that I see in this case:

  • Tight brand/audience alignment: The Alamo Drafthouse is frequented by the typical Austinite, which is to say, a highly educated, socially and politically engaged Boomer who takes movie viewing seriously. These folks love the no-talking-or-texting rule, so the PSA was more than a reminder of procedure—it was an emotional connector reinforcing the core brand attribute.
  • Humanizing self-deprecation: The whole effort was tongue-in-cheek, with the cinema’s crew poking fun at themselves along with the expelled customer. Think back to when you said or did something hilariously embarrassing at a cocktail party or backyard barbecue. You shared it with friends, and you all had a good laugh. Then they shared it with others, who shared it with others, and so on. All along the way, your image grew and grew, not only because others could identify with your plight, but because you were such a good sport to laugh at yourself and let others do so as well.
  • Socialization: The folks at the Alamo Drafthouse, starting with Principal Tim League, understand that markets truly are conversations, and that moviegoing is among the most social of activities. They get that their audience’s social life plays itself out in the digital realm as well as the physical one, and that by establishing relationships in one they strengthen those in the other.

The Alamo Drafthouse may be a small local chain, but with this YouTube promotion, its strategy and approach has set a new standard for fast, smart marketing via social media.

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