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Why the #HarlemShake is Disruptive Innovation to Social Media Campaign Marketing

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Why the Harlem Shake is an example of Disruptive Innovation to Gangnam Style and social media marketing. We have all seen the “Harlem Shake” meme by now, unless you are hiding under a rock. There are millions of these videos out there. Everyone seems to have produced one. College campuses to agencies to artists to nightclubs to corporations to the Today Show. Regardless of what you think of the meme or the song that fuels it one thing is clear. The power of social media is gravitating very quickly to the people.

Let’s rewind a bit before I set up my hypothesis as to why this meme changes communications in the era of social communications forever going forward. Let’s take a look at the last big trend involving music and YouTube. A South Korean pop artist that was part of the whole “K-pop” movement, Psy, came out with a huge pop techno jam this past August called “Gangnam Style.” The whole track is sung in Korean but that didn’t stop how popular it became. Much of that was due to several tipping points. Let’s take a look at what they were:

1. Psy was already a huge artist in South Korea and had a big major label contract behind him. Thus, he had a huge machine that could help promote him in Asia.

2. Psy had roots to the United States as a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

3. Psy got to the “Most Viewed Video” on YouTube mainly through the help of the majority of the population in Southeast Asia flooding the video with views. This rise helped bring it to the attention of American pop artists, who tweeted about it and thus gaining the attention of the domestic daytime talk shows.

4. The song was engineered to have mass popularity for radio programmers, and the video ended up parodied into memes by a variety of late night talk show hosts and other online comedians.

5. The song hit 1 billion video views on YouTube in December of 2012. Psy was signed to a domestic U.S. record deal and performed live in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

The song was engineered to be a hit from the get-go. It was backed by a major label (Universal Music Group) in Japan and South Korea and sprung from the phenomenon of “K-Pop,” which is a massive cultural movement. A music scene that is bright, polished, visual, and designed to be shared via texts, tweets, and social networks. The video was polished, scripted, and ultimately meant to be big using social as a distribution platform.

It was tipped by enormous forces to become the massive hit that it was. As Forbes Magazine noted, it was never even meant to be a meme but ended up so after the fact. It was content people enjoyed viewing, not necessarily participating in the creation or re-creation of.

Let’s define the term disruptive innovation. Wikipedia defines a disruptive innovation as an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology. The term is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in the new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.

Understand that “Gangnam Style” was produced content for the top of the pop market and for mass appeal. Now, let’s take a look at “Harlem Shake” and see how it is actually a disruptive innovation.

1. A group of longboard skateboarders in Australia decided to use the track pretty much as a “soundtrack” to a funny video. It wasn’t even their first video. It was the 69th they created. But it set the concept that eventually would be copied by others. In a classic sense, it wasn’t content created around an artist. It was content created to be remixed and recreated by others. It wasn’t necessarily endorsed by the artist nor a major label machine. It was a participatory experiment from the beginning.

2. Over 40,000 others replicated the video meme with their own interpretation. The question here is why? This is where my theory of disruptive innovation comes into play. Because social media is moving more from content creation by a major brand into content creation remixed by others, brands need to realize they need to cede the power of creation into the hands of the masses. “Gangnam Style” was all about active viewing and sharing of content. “Harlem Shake” disrupts that by moving into active recreation and participation in the production of new, distributed content. This is social media in its purest form.

3. The artist behind “Harlem Shake” is Brooklyn’s Baauer. He’s a young, 23-year-old electronic dance music producer producing tracks out of his bedroom. He’s not backed by a big record. The track has no official video to it. At this point, it has 40,000+ videos to it and counting. This is how the world now works. The revolution will not be televised because it will be produced and remixed by everyone with a video camera and editing software. The appeal is what one can do in 30 seconds to tell their story. It joins the 6-second revolution of platforms like Vine which are speeding up the pace of storytelling.

4. The track’s only recognition prior to the meme was by Pitchfork magazine (who gave it a favorable review and those who follow “Bass” and “Trap” music. Trap music is an underground Chicago-born EDM sub-genre that combines the elements of electro with the bass heaviness of hip-hop. If anything, it’s a genre that has no face to it, no polish, no machine. It wasn’t meant to be big by Psy standards but it represents that bottom area of the market of people who love electronic music, samples, and beats. The type of market demographic that most major corporations fail to market to because they still have no grasp of what it is or if it could ever be mainstream. In fact, the song was released on Mad Decent Records, Diplo’s label (an electronic artist). This states the fact that the song was meant for simply a dance floor.

5. The song has over 175 million combined views from the various meme videos. Unlike Psy’s video which has 6 billion views of the main video, “Harlem Shake” popularity feels like it is an organic part of a collective participatory event rather than a machine-driven plan.

“Harlem Shake” may never become as big as “Gangnam Style” but it was never supposed to be. It set out to fill that part of the market that is usually avoided by the big corporate record label machine. A machine that tends to avoid the bottom sector of musical sub-genres because it’s a market that is too low for them to create large revenue streams from or that they do not completely understand it. It doesn’t fit their business model. As a result, it’s disruptive innovation.

This disruption also proves to show those in social media that planned promotional campaigns and the building of content for sharing may no longer be the trajectory to follow. It is now about how a person can remix that content to put a stamp on it as their own. To make it personally relevant.

That’s why so many people made “Harlem Shake” videos. They could put their own personal stamp on it and use platforms to share with a global audience. We are now in a universe of remixology going forward. As a former DJ myself from 1990 to 2006, I understand remix culture. I embrace it in a world where the web to me is open and I support the “copyleft” movement as pushed by the late Aaron Schwarz (founder of Reddit). How copyright lawyers and brands will embrace content marketing now that meme culture has created a new landscape is a whole other story. Unfortunately I feel many brands and artists will listen to lawyers when it comes to releasing content to be remixed. Unfortunately, these brands might be further left behind as this disruption takes more of a mainstream hold on the consciousness of the population.

This meme changes the game even more in a world where social in two short months of 2013 has allowed for real time reactive content and global participation. No longer can brands, artists or organizations simply have “campaigns” where they try to get others to share their content. We have now entered a world where people must be inspired to remix content to put their own personal face on it. Brands must allow everyone to disrupt their content by allowing others to do as they wish with it. While this may seem scary to many brands, it comes at a reduced long term cost. Ultimately brands want to lower costs in the paid media space of the ecosystem. If Earned is what they ultimately are seeking to maximize in order to lower overall marketing costs, then remix programs like what occurred organically with “Harlem Shake” is an ultimate strategy.

The day and age of creating flashy content and a social media campaign around finished “alpha” content to help blow up yourself, your image or your brand is possibly on hiatus for specific brands. Possibly even dead. We are in a world that is constant “beta.” The disruptor of all of this is the result of a little known artist in Brooklyn, who’s track has provided countless amounts of people worldwide a creative canvass to express themselves.

And what do I have to say about all of this? Oh oppan!

P.S. Some of our Ogilvy & Mather offices around the world took part in this meme and even created their own version of the “Harlem Shake.” Enjoy!