These Viral Hits Were Rooted In Employee Trust

From the Target employee that gave a rousing speech on Black Friday to the Southwest flight attendant that raps safety instructions, viral sensations get millions of views on YouTube and are endlessly retweeted and shared. They are even covered by media companies across the globe scoring truckloads of good press and marketing mojo for the companies they represent. Often these innovative marketing masterpieces don’t even come from the marketing department, but from somewhere else entirely unexpected and it all starts with employee trust.

For anyone who has been to a Black Friday sale, it can only be described as complete chaos. Courteous demeanors are replaced by carnal survival actions, eerily similar to an episode of The Walking Dead. Apparently Target employee Scott Simms seemed to agree. Simms was made an overnight success when a co-worker Chole Frebertshauser posted his “This is Target” video online, sharing similarities to the speech given in the film 300.

The stunt was not only engaging and fun for employees, but the general public. The video went viral and has almost four million YouTube views. News agencies across the nation jumped on the story.

You’d think that a video of this nature, scoring possibly millions of dollars in free exposure would have been cleverly crafted by Target’s marketing department. But Target’s headquarters denies any involvement.

Southwest Airlines scored a similar hit with a video of flight attendant David Holmes rapping safety instructions. In the video, Holmes gets the audience to stomp and clap a beat that he raps over. Videos featuring Holmes have collectively scored well over a million views and like Target, has netted Southwest some incredible exposure. Not to mention others have recorded Holmes and posted their own videos including this one. Just like Target, Southwest also denies any involvement in these videos.

Even companies such as Comcast and Amazon have received incredible press from similar employee actions. In 2008, Frank Eliason was thrust into the national spotlight when he started to reply directly to people on Twitter using the handle @ComcastCares. Today, this is quite common, but at that time not only was this an unusual customer service approach, but unexpected from a cable company.

Before long, the @ComcastCares story exploded. Bloomberg would call Eliason “the most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly in the world.” “Those were all reactive, we didn’t call one publication about it,” Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury told me.

Amazon’s unplanned viral success came in the form of an online chat between Thor and Odin, both aliases of course. When an Amazon customer contacted customer service and noticed his reps name was Thor, jokingly requested to be called Odin. Without missing a beat the rep began to type back in his newly defined character role, complete with period-specific English. The customer exchange is hysterical and was eventually posted to Reddit, but it didn’t stop there. The post gained steam with many people applauding a refreshing take on customer service and eventually, it was picked up by other outlets.

In all four cases, these marketing gems appeared to have just fallen into the unsuspecting laps of Target, Southwest, Comcast and Amazon. But where did these ideas come from and what links them all? Yep. Employee trust.

For Eliason, the moment came when he helped TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. Eliason saw a tweet from Arrington, so called him up to help. He thought nothing of it, until a day later when Arrington wrote a blog post Comcast, Twitter And The Chicken (trust me, I have a point). As expected, most customers assumed he received star treatment, until comments started appearing making statements such as “hey I am nobody and they helped me too.”

It gave Eliason an idea and that day he started tweeting under the @ComcastCares handle. (At the time the Comcast handle was not available.) Because it was his job to engage customers, he didn’t even think to ask permission to respond on behalf of the company using Twitter. He just did it. “A few days later I did mention that I was tweeting to Jen Khoury. She said keep doing it, so I did,” Eliason told me.

Eliason was trusted to do his job well and because of key employee trust he was able to be nimble and act on behalf of the customer.

“We gave him the freedom and the opportunity to communicate and serve customers very independently,” said Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury. “We put him in this position and said, ‘We trust you, do what’s right, you be an advocate for the customer.’ ”

The same scenario seems to play out at Target’s “Sparta” store, albeit with very different characters. Frebertshauser informed me that Simms initially performed the speech in the back of the store before punch in, but because people enjoyed it so much, they asked him to do it again at the pre-opening meeting. This time it was filmed.

Frabertshauser found it so hilarious, she just had to film it. She wasn’t fearful of breaking company policy. She wasn’t fearful of her management team. She told me her team all acted like a big family. Employee trust, without her even knowing it, played a major role.

In all of these encounters, leaders managed talent through sincere employee trust and a family-like support system. Employees didn’t fear their leaders, but instead felt empowered and supported.

True leaders create an environment where employees aren’t on eggshells every moment, second-guessing every task. Their employees know that if they did truly step out of line, their leader would correct and guide them out of love, not threats to be fired.

Employees that feel loved and trusted by their leaders can’t contain it. They feel an inner burn and desire to share that love with the world through creative ideas — and those ideas are always worth spreading.

This article originally appeared on The Washington Post on September 4th, 2015. You can read it here.

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