Continuing our series that reveals the media manipulators behind some of the most popular media stories of the day, I wanted to interview Brian Swichkow. Slightly less controversial than Charles C. Johnson (who was banned from Twitter shortly after speaking to the Observer), Brian was responsible for one of the most viral Facebook pranks of all time—slowly driving his roommate insane with disturbingly accurate, personalized Facebook ads. A well-placed post on reddit led to millions of views and coverage in Adweek, Business Insider, Al Jazeera and others.
The prank was funny, but it also reveals how the media works—particularly the concept I call ‘trading up the chain.’ After meeting Brian through mutual friends, I decided to ask him everything I’d wanted to know about his prank since I first saw it last year. I’ll be honest: part of me still thinks it could be made up, or at least embellished. How would we know? But that doesn’t make Brian suspect—it would only make the stunt more impressive and the state of our media more alarming.
Observer: Tell us about the prank with your roommate and how it happened. It was a little over a year ago so help refresh our memories.
Brian Swichkow: A few years ago I listed an ad on Craigslist titled ‘Super Awesome Roommate Needed’ and weeks later, after filtering through a few sub par candidates, found a match. Just a few weeks into living together we felt as though we had known each other for years.
A few weeks into living together he pulled a rather elaborate prank, leading me to believe something that wasn’t true, and reported the deception to our friends in real-time…for over two weeks. He played to my personality perfectly and when I found out I smiled, bowed my head, and said “very well played…but I hope you know there will be retaliation, and it’s not going to be half-assed—it’s going to be just as calculated.” He looked mortified—and rightfully so.
Months later, while digging into the intricacies of Facebook advertising, I saw an opportunity to experiment. I had been using their ‘custom audiences’ to target an audience of ten thousand, but wanted to see what happened when I targeted an audience of one. In that moment I realized that this could be the perfect opportunity for my retaliation and created an entire advertising campaign specifically targeted at my roommate.
Rather than make it obvious, I decided to play into that paranoia we all have when Facebook’s ads ring a little too true. I hit him with all sorts of ads using information Facebook just shouldn’t know and for three weeks he became progressively more paranoid. It culminated in my realization that he was so concerned that he had largely stopped using his phone for fear that someone was listening in to his conversations.
After revealing my antics through yet another targeted advertisement he surrendered to my pranking superiority and has yet to attempt revenge. Unfortunately for me, the article that was published documenting my retaliation was noticed by a few of his friends and I’ve been told that there is an army waiting in the wings ready to exact his revenge. I remain unburdened by this threat, as I know, while based on an element of truth, it was an attempt to plant his own seed of paranoia.
Now, the prank itself was nothing compared to the reaction. You posted a little write up about it on your site and what happened? What was the response? Give us numbers.
Since launching the site, the prank article stats are:
– 4,168 points on the original reddit post
– another 3,675 points when crossposted to /r/bestof
– 907,138 pageviews to original article
– 26.6K social shares (facebook and twitter)
– 5:34 average time on site
– 61.51% of traffic from reddit
– featured on adweek, business insider, hacker news, al jazeera, someecards, search engine land, etc.
Was there anything you did to nudge it along? I’m assuming the blow up didn’t just ‘happen?”
I posted it to reddit’s /r/marketing community at a time when I knew people would be active. Most people in that community and on reddit as a whole flock to the social network when they get home from work (after 5PM). Since 51% of the US population lives on EST I used that as my guideline. I posted on Tuesday as, again from research, knew that was when people were most likely to be consuming on reddit. I also knew that if it gained the traction I was aiming for, it would happen on Wednesday, which is when most people seek escape from their jobs and are likely to be spending time on reddit at while at work during the day.
I chose the /r/marketing subreddit as it was relevant and substantially sized, but not so substantial that I would have to compete with a lot of other posts. When I posted it, I chose a headline based on what I had seen be effective in other top posts and sent the link to a few of my friends who I knew used reddit. I didn’t ask them for an upvote, but knew they would upvote it once they read it. I was able to get about 10 upvotes from friends within the first twenty minutes and another 25 from people I didn’t know. That was enough to tell reddit’s algorithm that it was worthwhile to sit at the top of the community.
What surprised you most about the reaction?
The biggest surprise came in the months after the prank and truly shaped my business. It was mind boggling to me how quickly people jumped from reading a humorous story to wanting to work with me. Here I thought that no CMO was about to pitch to their CEO that they should contract the guy that fucked with his roommate for a month, but lo and behold – they did. I was, and still am, blown away by how much people gravitate toward those who find joy in their work. People trusted me solely because what I do for money was also what I did for fun and that’s the type of person they wanted to work with. This has guided my various businesses and many of the strategies I create for clients as it’s a hell of a lot easier to drive traffic and conversions when you’re having fun doing it.
I never thought I could be accused of being a psychopath and offered consulting work for the same reason.
Be honest: How much of the prank actually happened? My initial suspicion on reading it was that it was brilliantly conceived but entirely fabricated. Let’s say it wasn’t—do you think you could have gotten away with it? Was any fact checking done by anyone who shared it or reported on it?
You wouldn’t be the first to have suspicions, many people did. The prank wasn’t done for the blog, it was done for fun and experimentation about a year before the blog existed. When I set out to start the blog my aim was to teach in the way that I best learned – through stories. All my friends know me to be highly extroverted, expressive, and always telling stories. My goal was to break through the belief that my writing had to be technical and tell things how they actually happened. You can see from many of my other posts that things didn’t always go according to plan and those are told in the same voice. I’ve learned most of what I know through failure and when I originally pranked him it was conceived as an experiment – I had no idea if it was going to work.
I don’t think I could have gotten away with it if it was fabricated. Lying of any kind takes too much effort for me. As an extrovert, the more truth there is behind the content, the louder I can be about sharing it. I was a bit surprised by the lack of fact checking. Which I’m not really sure how one would go about fact checking this. There was one interviewer that seemed a bit miffed that I wouldn’t give juicy details not included in the original article. My aim from the onset was to make the article a “humorous case study” and since it was, by design, meant to be comprehensive…nothing had been held back that could be considered an “exclusive” to the reporter.
Regarding general suspicion, there was a separate reddit thread that popped up saying the whole thing was a hoax. It was posted on /r/hailcorporate and at one point in the comments accused me of being a Facebook employee attempting to promote use of their ads platform. Once I found the thread I read through every comment and did my best to offer open, honest, and transparent clarification to the issues they identified. The comment where I addressed the OP pretty much killed all suspicion in the thread.
And now what I’d like to know is this: how did you benefit from this? What was the payoff for you—outside of the original fun? Email addresses? Press clippings? Clients? How have you leveraged the attention it got? I’m assuming that because this relates to what you do for a living, this worked out very well for you.
I actually did a pretty horrible job of collecting email addresses, but think that it would have spread less prolifically if there was a hard pitch to opt-in. The only real push I had in that regard was a HelloBar saying “Join The Community.”
There were two primary ways I benefitted: intrinsically and extrinsically.
Intrinsically this was, like everything else in my life, an experiment. I learned how to write in a way that truly expressed my voice, how to succeed online by tapping into the asset of personality, and the importance of load testing a website before going live.
Extrinsically this has, and continues to, propel my career forward. It started with consulting opportunities and a few job offers from people who read the article. When it came up in conversations with potential clients they, to my dismay, all but signed the proposal on the spot. A few speaking gigs cam in organically, which led to more consulting work, and the press coverage has enabled me to secure others I’ve pitched for. Still, months later, I get emails stating that they found me through the article and are interested in working with me. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, but I’ve put a lot of time into one-upping myself.
What did you learn about media and the social web from all this? What do you think it illustrates that most people don’t know?
When it comes to dating, I’ve been told more than a handful of times that I “try too hard” and it’s been a fairly accurate. For the last few years however I’ve tried to live by the axiom “do as you love and you will find those that love as you do.” This experience was a clear illustration of how that same principle rings true in a professional setting. People want to work with those of similar minds. Too often personality is seen as something that doesn’t belong in business. While I stopped wearing a tie when everyone told me “you have to dress the part to be successful in business” it wasn’t until this experience that I discovered how powerful of an asset my personality truly was. As a result of this experience, I finally found the motivation to start meditating on daily and have used this practice to filter outside influences thus learning to speak from a voice that is genuinely mine.
Much of what I discovered could be summarized by saying, “that which is most cliche is often the most true.”
Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. Stop looking at what works and discover what works for you. So much of what I did to launch the ‘My Social Sherpa‘ blog was contrary the common sense. There was no clear incentive to opt-in to the email list, there was no explanation of why you should contact me, I listed none of my credentials or skills, and I didn’t optimize any of my content for search. While many have surmised this was a result of laziness, it was actually a result of strategy. I wanted people to perceive me online as they did in real life—unpolished and rough around the edges, but genuine and intellectually entertaining. It was impossible for me to broadcast my true personality when I was worried about how that would affect the pitch coming around the corner.
Never let your pitch be louder than your personality.
Is there anything you’ve seen other people do recently that made you excited? That inspired your next idea? What’s next for you?
There are a few inspirations that come to mind:
Groupon showed the power of personality while answering questions in the thread discussing the ‘Banana Bunker’. Instead of ignoring the obvious to present themselves as politically correct, they showed their humanity only to be extensively rewarded with brand affinity and earned media impressions. Their antics were featured on AdWeek, Forbes, Mashable, Buzzfeed, Business Insider, and College Humor just to name a few. Millions of impressions for the price of a few sexual references that Human Resources hears every day.
When it comes to speaking the personality of a brand, Ben and Jerry’s has distilled their recipe to perfection. When news broke that marijuana had been legalized in Colorado they crafted one subtle and completely brilliant tweet. It wasn’t complicated or even well produced, but it evoked laughter and displayed the humanity of the brand.
While it was a few years ago, it’s still a favorite example. Warby Parker’s creation and launch of the Warby Barker brand as an April Fool’s prank was a true win. By showing personality, quality of execution, and genuine humor they were able to capture conversations and introduce people to their brand in a unique way.
When people feel like they have a piece of the business in their timeline, they feel like a part of the team behind it. A business that doesn’t hide it’s beliefs and opinions feeds the perception that the organization as a whole is open and honest. A business’ willingness to alienate some of its audience further fuels this belief and ties a stronger bond — even with those who disagree.
While I will continue to keep writing about my experiences, I have a laundry list of stunts in the works with a variety of partners. I’ve learned that some of the best ideas come to me in conversations with colleagues when we’re a few drinks in. From single page websites, clever monetization strategies, and building communities in record time—if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.
He’s also put together this list of 15 books that you’ve probably never heard of that will alter your worldview, help you excel at your career and teach you how to live a better life.