There is a very old idea that jesters and clowns are the only ones who can speak the truth to power. They can say the things that everyone knows but is too afraid to. I’m starting to wonder if, in today’s media environment, it’s the trolls and pranksters who are able to expose and reveal what all suspect to be true yet refuse to act on.
It’s for this reason that I’ve interviewed a number of these figures for this column—Peter Young, whose animal rights stunts have made headlines; Mathew Carpenter, whose ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com idea not only exposed just how gullible the media is, but netted him $85,000. It’s also why I wanted to speak with James Shamsi, a growth hacker responsible for stunts like KardBlock, which blocks Kardashian news from your computer and fake apps like #Puppify. His work has been featured everywhere from The Huffington Post to The Los Angeles Times and he has raised more than $500,000 on Kickstarter.
He’s messing with us—trolling both the media and its readers—for personal gain for sure, but also revealing critical information about our habits and triggers. I wanted to find out how he plies his trade and what we can learn from it. Can you trust all of it? I’m not sure. But it’s certainly thought-provoking.
Tell us what KardBlock is and where the idea came from. What were you hoping the media reaction would be?
KardBlock is a Google Chrome extension that hides all mention of the Kardashians from your internet experience. The idea came to me while I was scrolling on my news feed and all I saw was stories about the Kardashians, their butts, their lips (this is when the Kylie Jenner lip challenge was taking off), and gossip about their relationships. It frustrated me because at the same there were so many more important issues going on in the world which were being heavily suppressed in favour of click bait articles like “Kim’s new selfie book bares all”.
I was hoping the media also took my view, though it was also a risk that they wouldn’t write about it at all given KardBlock’s site openly hated on all the big publishers for allowing this current state. However, most journalists don’t really care about people commenting on their articles saying how ironic it was they were talking about KardBlock, their bottom line is always clicks and views, so thankfully this wasn’t an issue and most writers supported it.
What was your motivation for doing KardBlock? Was it to get that attention? I know it raised some money for charity, but I imagine that was a secondary concern.
The idea came to me after I launched my viral consultancy and social media management agency, Chameleon.LA. After setting up I faced the issue of SEO, having just graduated I didn’t have enough money to pay an SEO agency to help me climb Google’s ranks, so I begun researching how to do it myself. I learnt that the best way to improve your SEO was to get reputable big sites to link you out—as having this done validates your site as something worthy in the eyes of Google algorithm to get pushed up in their search results. So, given I have no real contacts to get my agency written about, I had to get creative. I decided to growth hack my own growth hacking agency…and so KardBlock was born.
I made KardBlock in the hope that I could feed it to well known publishing platforms who will, while writing about it, mention my agency and I, and thus hopefully link out to my site in the process…and it worked! By the end of the campaign I had sites like CNBC, Entertainment Tonight, The Telegraph, and dozens of others linking to my site, all helping to drive a huge amount of traffic and significantly boosting my SEO as a result. I also used KardBlock as one of my first personal growth hacks to add to my portfolio to prove my methods, as I loathe reading articles and seeing sales pitches on people telling others how to go viral when they haven’t done it themselves. To justify the sale of my own eBook on going viral, I set myself the challenge of going viral around once a month and used this as the big first stunt to kick it all off.
Tell us about your strategy of using sockpuppets—as an attractive woman—to get writers to cover KardBlock. How did that technique work? Would it work for other projects you think?
I use alias accounts like this all the time for a range of things. For instance, I recently needed an introduction to a marketing executive at an entertainment firm—but I had no ‘in’ to contact to this person. So, I looked at a networking event his company held in the past 2 months and emailed him as ‘Lauren’. Lauren who was so happy to have met him last month and wanted to introduce her friend…me. So, these alias accounts are hugely useful for a range of things, especially in getting journalists to write articles. For KardBlock it was useful in my emails as I wanted them to have the tone of a teenage girl who either: (a) hated this loser who spent time making this and was bad mouthing her idol Kim, or (b) loved this man who was saving the internet. Of course, I couldn’t write either of these angles from my own personal email address. Thus, these tactics are a great cheeky way to contact journalists and send them to your projects with different angles tailored to the audiences of their different blogs. For instance, tech blogs and news sites were given the second angle of ‘what a saviour’, while entertainment sites whose readership loves Kim was given the ‘what a loser/hater angle’. These strategies can and do work really well for all types of projects, it just depends on how creatively you use this aliases, and the method in which you choose to execute.
I still use the technique for a lot of viral seeding and forcing introductions for myself. I also do similar things on Twitter, but LinkedIn is really useful and unique because of its export contacts function that allows you to pull people’s personal email addresses – having that can really make people believe that your fake accounts like Lauren really did meet them, and that a genuine intro is being made. Being a hot girl on LinkedIn also opens up so many doors. For instance, I tested this for an article I recently published on my LinkedIn. I found that I got a much much higher reply rate to messages, and I even got job offers for jobs I was clearly unqualified for at reputable companies. It was actually pretty sickening, as I created the same exact profile as the ‘hot girl’ one, only with a picture of an ordinary looking guy. The result? Barely anyone added him back, he got near to no replies, and of course – he got no unsolicited job offers. Check out the full article here.
Tell us about some of the other stunts and experiments you’ve done. How have they changed how you see the media? What lessons have you taken from them as a marketer?
I’ve done a ton of personal viral growth hacks, (feel free to check them out, as well as my ebook on www.JamesSamirShamsi.com), as well as multiple viral videos & PR stunts for clients, and one thing I’ve learnt is that journalists don’t care. They don’t care about fact checking, they don’t care about ethics (generally speaking), they only care about one thing – clicks. All people want to do is to drive traffic to their articles. That’s their one and only true KPI. As sad as that may be, (as it means less real journalism), it also makes the media extremely easy to exploit. Because of this I stick to my one main philosophy in creating viral content – all that matters is click potential. With this in mind I’ve learnt you can turn make some of the most mundane stunts and videos viral, as long as you indirectly show journalists that by writing about this they’ll get a lot of clicks. This is also what I did with KardBlock to some extent when I emailed them saying either (a) this guys a pathetic hater loser, or (b) this guy is the saviour of the internet.
It’s really changed the way I see the media in that sense. First, I used to think that things went viral themselves, and that journalists actually did research. Now I realize that’s not true. I also used to think that it was hard to get your start-up or app noticed, now that I’ve cracked the code to going viral I’m largely doing it for fun or to prove a point. For instance, a client approached me who wanted their app to go viral, but didn’t believe in me or my strategy so turned me away. What did I do? I executed with the exact methodology I recommended to them myself with a fake app I made called: #Puppify, and within 1 day I got it on major sites like Refinery29 and the Daily Mail. The biggest lesson is here is that anything can be growth hacked or engineered to go viral, you just need to be creative and find an angle.
How would you define what you do? Obviously I’ve heard from a number of people like you, who seem to have developed an attitude for exploiting the loopholes in our media system. Some of it they do for profit, some for fun, some—well I don’t know why.
I truly hate the word, but it is the most fitting—I’m a growth hacker.
I find creative ways, angles, and ideas to get people and brands noticed. But, this isn’t just limited to creating PR stunts or viral videos. For instance, using different growth hacking tactics the GNARBOX team and I raised over $500,000 on Kickstarter within 30 days. I also advise start-ups and help apps rapidly and sustainably grow their user base, show restaurants how they can leverage tools like Twitter on a massive scale to reach everyone in their city for free, and really just find creative solutions for businesses that don’t have the budget otherwise to battle bigger brands the size of Coca-Cola. I do definitely in part do viral things for fun, but there’s also always a goal or purpose with it. Now that I know the secrets of going viral I’m planning on using this to raise millions for charity.
Tell us about your media diet. What do you read? Who do you trust? Who should people stay away from? Who have you dealt with that made you think: “Nobody should take them seriously”?
I love tech, so I’m a big fan of sites like Mashable, The Verge, TechCrunch and The Next Web. But, for the question of who I trust – no one really. Everyone has an agenda because everyone has ad space they want to sell, and the only way they make money is by sensationalizing headlines and stories to drive traffic to their sites. For instance, one site that I know has barely any vetting required for their stories and will post pretty much anything to stay relevant and get views is Yahoo! News. They’ll jump at anything, and they won’t bother doing much research – so I do kind of love them for making my job easier!
Having said that, I do go to one or two organizations for news everyday, e.g. the BBC and the YouTuber Phillip DeFranco and his ‘SourceFed’ team. The last 2 are incredibly open about their sponsors and very candid about their views, and often happy to say things that results in them losing subscribers to maintain their authenticity- but of course it’ll also be somewhat biased to their own opinions. Reddit is also a great source, though it does usually just end up linking articles on sites that make money from ads. However, you do get great insights on topics from other users commenting on the article thread.
What’s next for you?
Charity & money. I just turned 22 last month so I still need to find more clients for my agency Chameleon.LA to finance my passion projects – which are mostly charity based. For instance, it sounds a bit ludicrous but I want to crowdfund half a million dollars to buy the world’s first crowdfunded private island…I then want to turn the island into a minimalist charity resort. This will basically allow the everyday family or group of friends to rent an entire island for themselves for a few days at a time at an affordable rate, with all the profits generated from this going to charity. I’m also trying to work with YouTube, Snapchat and Vine to create an annual campaign combining all their top influencers to raise millions each year for a specific charity. Having said that, I am a team of one at the moment, so if anyone reading this wants to help please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org!
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.