The unintended economics of a viral tweet

The most retweeted tweet in history

On May 9th, 2017, Cater Wilkerson was able to get free chicken nuggets for a year by merely directing a tweet at Wendy’s. Wendy’s, a popular American fast food joint best known for its Frosty’s, gave Wilkerson a year’s worth of free chicken nuggets after an informal deal was made in which Wilkerson tweeted “Yo @Wendys how many retweets for a year of free chicken nuggets?” in which Wendy’s replied “18 Million”. Hence, #NuggsForCarter was born. It seemed that all of Twitter was banding together to help Wilkerson get his nuggets by retweeting this tweet. In the end, Wilkerson was not able to get the 18 million retweets but did get 3.4 million retweets, making his post the most retweeted tweet in history.

The question posed then was whether this exchange between a Wendy’s social media intern and Wilkerson was possibly the greatest social media marketing strategy in history—one that occurred by accident. This tweet acquired a total of 3.6 million retweets (as of July 2018) and provided exposure to the 336 million active users of Twitter. However, what is the actual value of this media exposure? Considering that many prominent influencers and celebrities such as Pewdiepie and Martha Hunt along with company Twitter accounts like Google and LinkedIn retweeted this tweet for no additional cost; the marketing value of this tweet is staggering. The Ayzenberg Group calculated that the 3.5 million retweets are worth close to $7 million. The earned media value, which was calculated using how many times the hashtag #NuggsForCarter was tweeted, was estimated to be worth nearly $450,000. In total, this accidental marketing promotion was worth over $7.5 million, and it was accomplished by only sending a tweet in less than 30 seconds. The cost? Close to nothing. At that point, it was clear: the future of social media is in business.

It may come as a surprise to some, as social media is considered something that is personal and separate from work or business. People, especially young individuals, are often told to be careful about what they post on social media in the event an employer searches them up on the internet. Many even suggest refraining from using social media to avoid this possibility of losing a job due to what they post on the internet. Despite these warnings, it appears that social media is not slowing down anytime soon. According to the Pew Research Center, over 88% of 18-24-year olds use at least one social media platform. 30-49-year olds have a 78% usage rate, and 50-64-year olds have a 64% rate. It goes to show that social media marketing is the new upcoming form of digital marketing. With a majority of people using social media, it is clear that this is the new way to reach the largest population possible. With these many users on social media platforms, it is clear this is the new form of digital marketing is taking the world by storm: the use of social media to promote products or interact directly with the consumers.

This was no traditional form of digital marketing though. Traditionally, companies will pay social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter to place an ad in the middle of your newsfeed. They will have the words “sponsors” or “promoted” on the bottom of the post, indicating that there is no way to remove the post; after all, the company did pay to have their product featured, and you are simply a user who does not pay to use the platform. Starting in 2015, Facebook updated their algorithm to improve their advertising tactics (Pollock). This meant that the advertisements the users would see on their feed would become significantly more targeted toward a user’s interests and habitats. For example, you looked up a pair of shoes but decided not to purchase them. Later on, you decide to log-in to Facebook, and there is an ad for the shoe you looked up earlier, along with other shoes similar to the original one. Facebook recently came under scrutiny after it was revealed that the information Facebook collected on its users was accessible to others; they would openly sell information about its users to companies (Granville). This is the perfect example of digital marketing going too far; the idea that so much information can be collected about you that it can be used to predict what you want. During this era of digital marketing, it seems that people are reluctant to respond to these types of ads. After years of being so successful, it seemed like digital marketing was in a recession.

This new form of digital marketing has arisen in response to the negative feelings toward the traditional forms: social media marketing. The question posed then was whether this form of marketing is effective or worthwhile for businesses. Does anyone genuinely follow or engage with the social media accounts of companies and are they as successful as the traditional forms of digital marketing? The answer to these questions is one that may surprise you: not necessarily, but that doesn’t matter. Going back to Wendy’s incident, this accidental engagement that went viral may have arguably been one of the best social media marketing campaigns ever created—and it was done on accident. This tweet acquired a total of 3.6 million retweets (as of July 2018) and provided exposure to the 336 million active users of Twitter. Even if the users did not engage with the tweet, (retweeting or liking it), Wendy’s still showed up on their feed. The idea or image of Wendy’s was still placed in the user’s mind. This was not a sponsored post; it was shared by one of their friends or a highly regarded influencer. This new form of marketing adds a humanistic aspect to the overall structure. It is not Wendy’s attempt to persuade you into buying their nuggets, your friend likely enjoys the product as well and shared it willingly.

This incident was not the first time companies have used their social media accounts to engage with consumers. Companies often do not settle with simply having a Facebook page or a website. Companies now have social media accounts such as Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat to keep their loyal customers updated with the latest sales and promotions regarding the company. The use of social media to market their product and company is a smart strategy since the platforms often have over a hundred million followers for each platform. On top of that, social media accounts are free to create and easy to verify as the “official” page. This benefits not only companies but also their consumers since it is free of charge for them to join the platform as well.

Social media is a powerful tool utilized by many and does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. As the hours we spend online roaming these platforms increases, companies are now trying to squeeze in what screen time they can get during these moments. The use of social media can be a fantastic marketing campaign that reaches millions for a price of nearly nothing. However, one must know how and when to play their cards because, without them, you may end up with a marketing campaign disaster. As long as social media can maintain its monopoly on our attention, the future of social media is in business.