A Social Media Success Case Study
(Editorial Note: The CDC post mentioned in this post has been removed from it’s original location. However you can still read it on the Internet Archive here. Be patient, the link takes a while to load.)
In 2011 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a quintessentially staid and stolid government bureaucracy, did something quite unexpected. They explained how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse. Yes, a zombie apocalypse. On May 16th, 2011, a blog post authored by Ali S. Khan, CDC Director of Preparedness, appeared with the strange title Social Media: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. Readers didn’t quite know what to think.
Of course the CDC had not totally lost its grip on reality. Nor were Zombies a real threat. The CDC was merely using a clever – and tremendously successful – method to attract attention to its annual push for disaster preparedness. According to an excellent account and blow-by-blow timeline on The Benshi, the unexpected post was the brainchild of two CDC employees, Catherine Jamal and Dave Daigle, who were searching for a way to motivate people to do some disaster preparedness at the beginning of the hurricane season. Soon the post was generating incredible viral publicity (Writer Randy Olson reported that the CDC media analyst Cision valued the P.R. at $3 million), being featured on The New York Times, Fox News, the Huffington Post, Time Magazine and hundreds of websites. In less than a week the post had received 963,000 page views. If you read the post, I think you’ll agree that it was indeed moderately clever, but certainly nothing breathtaking. So what was the secret to it’s success? I think it has to do with three things:
- They tapped into a powerful cultural meme: Zombies. AMC’s show The Walking Dead and countless zombie movies beat a path and the CDC followed it.
- They did something unexpected. What do you expect from the CDC? I know what I expect: dry warnings about the flu and smoking and HIV and reports of medical research. No one expects anyone there to have fun with anything.
- They followed up well. In fact the campaign is still generating traffic 3 years later and you can still embed zombie-flavored CDC code on your website (in fact, we’re showing you some of their embeds below). They’ve added a zombie poster, zombie educator tips, and more.
Return of the Zombies
Of course there are consequences. In 2012 the CDC was once again enmeshed in zombies, but this time repeatedly, and incredulously, trying to debunk the rumors that the dreaded zombie apocalypse had actually begun (see the Huffington Post report here).
The Zombie Preparedness List
Oh, and by the way, in case you’re curious, the following is the list of the most important items to have on hand for when the undead are unleashed:
- Water (1 gallon per person per day)
- Food (stock up on non-perishable items that you eat regularly)
- Medications (this includes prescription and non-prescription meds)
- Tools and Supplies (utility knife, duct tape, battery powered radio, etc.)
- Sanitation and Hygiene (household bleach, soap, towels, etc.)
- Clothing and Bedding (a change of clothes for each family member and blankets)
- Important documents (copies of your driver’s license, passport, and birth certificate to name a few)
- First Aid supplies (although you’re a goner if a zombie bites you, you can use these supplies to treat basic cuts and lacerations that you might get during a tornado or hurricane)
For a full disaster preparedness checklist, the CDC has a less humorous, but certainly more complete page.