"I actually think social media has made April Fools a more memorable day than ever."
This was one of many tweets praising the April Fools' pranks that emerged earlier this week. This year more than any other consumers were inundated by jokes and tricks, the vast majority of them playing out online.
Google, YouTube, Twitter, Sony, Toshiba, Procter & Gamble, Virgin, Hotels.com, and Nestle were among dozens upon dozens of brands that got into the game. On Twitter, @AprFoolsDay kept a running tally of events at the alarming rate of several new pranks per hour.
The concocted products and services ranged from downright silly to disturbingly plausible. A few days prior to April 1, P&G's Scope brand announced it would be launching Scope Bacon mouthwash. The new product was featured on the Scope brand website, YouTube channel, and Facebook page. It was given its own microsite, product video, and hashtag. The effort was so comprehensive that many speculated the product could actually be real.
True or False?
For the most part, the day's tomfoolery was all in good fun. Most hoaxes were clearly spoofs of existing products, or whimsical looks at what would happen if an existing idea was taken to the extreme. That said, partaking in the April Fools' Day tradition isn't without its risks. It is, after all, about telling lies, and harmless though they may be, they're lies all the same. Before participating in the trend brands have to be certain they know their customers well enough to avoid pushing a prank too far.
There's also the peculiar danger of failing to make a joke outrageous enough. Well into April 1 Scope still hadn't clarified whether its bacon-flavored mouthwash was real (an admission of guilt didn't come until late afternoon). A good number of consumers tweeted their enthusiasm and intention to buy - likely the same folks who stock up on genuine bacon-flavored products like lip balm and dental floss. With so many people hoping and believing Scope Bacon would be coming to market, Scope ran the risk of delivering a walloping disappointment.
Pranks as Consumer Polls
Other brands mitigated this risk by using the day as an opportunity to judge consumer interest in a potential product; what's a joke today, they said, could become a saleable product tomorrow. This was the route taken by British retailer Boden and its Marylebone Man-Skirt. Product copy cited the brand's U.K. heritage and long-standing admiration of the kilt, and referenced the changes in how men now work (horseback riding and field-ploughing labors of old having been replaced by typing at computer desks). In so many words, Boden pointed out that skirts are finally a practical fashion choice for men. It even offered some handy styling tips.
Everything about the forward-thinking apparel brand launching a man-skirt made perfect sense. Only when the consumer clicked to buy did he get a pop-up confessing the prank ("However," Boden wrote, "we won't rule out producing a real one should demand dictate it").
The opportunity to partake in April Fools' Day only comes once a year, but that single day may well produce more digital marketing insight than any other. Businesses: counterproductive though it may seem, look to your peers' shenanigans to guide your upcoming campaigns.
Remain relevant. Seth Godin used April Fools' Day to highlight his expertise in "remarkable" marketing by inventing an Amazon Kindle that's free to consumers and even includes a cash incentive ("Read a book, get paid in cash. This is beyond free"). Naturally, his blog post also mentioned his newest real-life book. Marketers planning branded content placements and viral campaigns should follow Godin's lead: differentiate your products and demonstrate your worth within the context of the event at hand.
BMW U.K. did something similar with its April Fools' P.R.A.M. stroller for the royal couple, complete with the same EfficientDynamics technology found in its real models. Because the automaker placed the hoax product on its brand site it was able to include a link to its car configurator tool and potentially generate some real sales.
Both Godin's and BMW's mock products served to highlight the core features and unique attributes of the pranksters while still coming off lighthearted and funny. They were highly relevant - and very much on-brand.
Know when to stop. In April Fools' terms this means keeping consumers on the hook just long enough to entertain and confound before you come clean, but it can be applied to everything from targeted banner ad impressions to your volume of Promoted Tweets. Know the limits of what your target audience will endure, be it the humor in a branded viral video or the number of branded Facebook page updates you post each day.
A good example of April Fools' wit with restraint came from The Webby Awards, which sent word of its new AutoFriend.ly app ("Put your friendships on autopilot") in its daily "Netted" email. The newsletter linked to a microsite, but as soon as consumers clicked to download the app the jig was up. Netted provided just the right amount of "fool" without making the user feel like one. It kept distribution and exposure to a respectable minimum so as not to bombard Internet users on an already frenetic "news" day.
As we learned from MTV and BET's joint mock Twitter hack earlier this year, consumers don't like to feel duped. It doesn't take much for a gambit for attention to offend viewers and spawn parodies. Remember, it's all fun and games until consumers turn on your brand.
As the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on me." Fool me twice, though, and you'd better be sure the prank is worth the effort.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.
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