Stephen Colbert’s Fake Twitter Hack

Late last night, as I was checking my twitter feed (hopefully for the last time before going to bed), I noticed a rather unusual tweet from @stephenathome, Stephen Colbert’s twitter account. It looked like the account was hacked, similar to incidents earlier in the week (with Burger King, Jeep, MTV and BET). While the first two were orchestrated by actual hackers (allegedly Anonymous) and were done with apparently no harmful intentions, the ‘BET+MTV’ was a copycat marketing campaign, brought to you by the social media ninjas at Viacom. You see, by some interwebs miracle (that can be easily explained with curiosity, viral lift, ‘stick-it-to-the-man appeal’, and sheer audience reach of Burger King and McDonalds), the original twitter hack resulted in a massive following boost for either (or both) fast food chains. Unintended positive consequences. Don’t ya love those? So, it was just a matter of time before this one-and-done idea was modeled and marketed as an actual audience-reach campaign. Meaning, somebody actually got paid – and handsomely, to do the same thing.

Now I don’t know whether this fake-hack was successful for MTV/BET (which just happened a day later), nor do I care. I’m not the target audience for either network, nor am I a follower. Typically, if I see something out-of-place in my feed, I check its validity, and block/report spam. However, seeing an out-of-place, out-of-tone tweet from an account I follow, made me pause. Now, normally I watch Colbert with a little delay (a day or two, whenever the episode is available on their site in entirety, especially if they have extra-long episodes). Occasionally, I watch live, when the guest is good, or when I happen to stay up late. So obviously, I didn’t see the show last night. Too bad – because, in his typical tongue-in-cheek way, Stephen not only faked the twitter hack, he also skewered the entire concept (which, by last night, was only 2 days old).

Now that’s timely and clever. Dunno where the concept originated, but it definitely went through Colbert’s writing room, and a bit, or a segment, was top notch. Of course, I’m seeing it now, the next morning, late to the game as usual. But as of last night, 11:40-ish, this was a cool, subversive, very timely TV sketch, that instantly went viral on web (or did it). Without the subtext of the show, a simple tweet in my feed, just before midnight, made little sense. And here’s the part where this campaign, or meta-campaign, or satire-campaign (whatever the true intent is) began to fall apart.

Colbert Report (and #colbertnation) is largely a satirical, counter-culture brand, with a sharp, young audience (4.6M is a nice following if you can get it). It can (and often does) jump quickly on memes, deconstruct them into the ground, or ride them to a viral sensation. In this case, the timing was impeccable, the audience match of Colbert and VH1 – maybe less of a fit – but the duration fails miserably. Apparently, the fake-tweets continued through the night, and are still going on Friday morning.

If Colbert airs M-R, why do the segment on Thursday night, and leave it be for the weekend? It’s much too long for a social campaign, and if anything, a stunt like that will result in bigger viewership for Colbert, not VH1. Why not do the hack Wednesday night, and just sit back and watch a bump in viewers on Thursday? That’s the goal, right? Immediate lift, short-term gains. Who cares if either Colbert or VH1 brands (on twitter at least) are tarnished or massively un-followed? That’s a whole separate discussion, and in a cold world of marketers, where ‘as long as they talk about us, who cares if it’s negative or positive’, that discussion doesn’t even belong.

So why leave this stunt for the last show of the week? And more importantly, after it became clear (to me – after 5th fake tweet, I’m slow like that :)) that the hack was faked, and after I checked with the actual episode the next morning (staying informed is kinda critical) – why continue the charade? As far as I know, the fake tweets are still going out there, the sentiment around the fake #vh1classichack is getting more and more negative. What was clever and funny at midnight is no longer so – social media audiences are finicky and very impatient.

Don’t know if people are actually unfollowing or just threatening to – but the negative sentiment is going to stay. Some fans – got it right away. Others (like myself) arrived a little late. But it’s gone on too long, and the tone of both Colbert’s audience and the fake hashtag – have soured. Unless I’m missing some long-term counter-counter-culture meta-meta goal, I think this one was played a few hours too long.

Nevertheless, kudos for great timing, and great audience match (Viacom doesn’t have many brands that fit Colbert tone, and I understand why they needed to go outside of Comedy Central family to make a point). But this could have been done with half-a-dozen tweets, and some conclusion – referral, call to action, mock press-conference.

But it’s Friday morning, a slow news days, the tech blogs will no doubt talk about it, and the mass-media (constantly late to everything time-sensitive) will fill their headlines. Meanwhile, the audience that this was aimed at – has moved on. Give us the next meme.

As for the social media ninjas – ask yourselves what exactly were you trying to do? Deconstruct a meme while trying to build brand awareness, or take this thing so far that both brands lose edge and audiences? Unless of course you find the 20th fake-tweet from an orchestrated marketing campaign either cool, or informative.

Maybe I’m wrong here?


UPDATED: merely 30 minutes after I posted the above (wow, timing is really tight on the webs), @stephenAthome has ‘regained’ control of his twitter account. The bit is over. The campaign has completed. Now what? Count followers? Unfollowers? Track the uptick in VH1 programming? Wait for Monday evening to see if Colbert Report does a callback bit? I’m curious to find out the metrics, and the goals of this. But so far – looks like it cost Colbert some cred and edge. Even though it was intended as satire.

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