Q-and-A: Inside the Charlie Sheen Twitter Explosion

As Charlie Sheen took over weeks of news cycles, overshadowing political turmoil in the Middle East, the economy and more, it wasn’t just on television or in the newspapers where Sheen was making waves. His saga also largely played out online, and in the realm of social media.

After opening a Twitter account on March 1, Sheen became the quickest individual ever to amass 1 million followers, doing so in just more than 25 hours. Today, Sheen has more than 3.3 million followers and counting, providing a direct line of communication between himself and his fans.

Not only is he tweeting about warlocks and winning and tiger blood, he’s also getting paid to tweet thanks to his relationship with Ad.ly (pronounced Add-lee). Ad.ly is a company that matches celebrities on social media with advertisers looking to reach the millions of consumers who spend their time on services like Facebook and Twitter every day.

The company has worked with more than 1,000 celebrities and 150 brands, and has made more than 24,000 endorsements to date. Sean Rad, founder of Ad.ly, took some time to discuss the company and what it’s all about, the role it played in the Sheen Twitter explosion, what it means for advertising in today’s Web 2.0 world and much more.

Could you start by explaining to someone who never has heard of your company before, what it is that you do?

Sean Rad: We work with celebrity endorsements in social media. Celebrity endorsements is a $50 billion market right now. Most of that money is being spent on television and offline. What we’re doing is connecting brands with celebrities in social media who have their own distribution.

We’re basically matching the brand and celebrity intelligently based on what we know about that celebrity’s audience and how they fit with the brand. We create the creative, and then get the celebrity to send out a tweet or a message, and then we track the life of the brand and how many clicks have gotten retweets, and so on. We work with over 1,000 celebrities, so these are top names you can think of in social media, and over 150 brands. We’ve already run about 24,000 endorsements to date.

The reason why we started the company is we saw that celebrities were migrating online and were creating valuable content. They are establishing this digital presence, and we saw that it’s something that is valuable and should be monetized in a way for a celebrity. The celebrity should create revenue from it. There is also fantastic distribution and value for the brand that taps into it. So we wanted to create a marketplace to connect those two parts.

You work with multiple social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook, and particularly when it comes to Twitter, I think a lot of people would say something like ‘Well geez Twitter should have been doing this themselves!’ Why aren’t they … did you just beat them to the punch?

SR: Why we sort of are doing this and not them, so to say, is that I don’t think it’s in the culture of Silicon Valley to think this way. Silicon Valley is very focused on building tools and platforms and allowing sort of a democracy of users to come and use them however they see fit.

In reality though, if you look at traditional media, the billions and billions in advertising dollars are spent on broadcast mediums. They’re pretty much spent on celebrities and content creators, people who have an audience. Brands want to associate themselves with that and reach that audience. If you look at Twitter, the reality is there is a very finite number of users, like celebrities, bloggers and so on, who are creating most of the value that’s being consumed by the masses.

In other words, Twitter is a broadcasting company; they’re a media company. We have that vision of Twitter, which is why we feel that the value for brands is through integration with the content, and celebrities being the sort of “content creators” who are being compensated for that value they are creating on the platform. I think part of the reason why they haven’t pursued it is because a) it’s sort of that they have not wrapped their heads around it yet and b) it is very difficult to build the platform that we have built by sheer virtue of the number of relationships we’re managing. We have spent over two years creating relationships with all the players in Hollywood, and it’s a very fragmented industry. So to roll that all up is a lot of work.

When comparing what you do to sponsored recommendations on Twitter, Facebook ads, Google Pay-Per-Click and so forth, if you were talking to a brand or advertiser, what would you say are the benefits of Ad.ly?

SR: We’re simple. Effective. Measurable. We can connect brands with millions of users, through celebrities. We can do it in a very simple way. We can track results. The beauty of it is that celebrities cut through the noise. We’re hit with a lot of ads as an Internet user. The things you’re going to pay attention to are what the celebrities are talking about, and what they’re telling you. So when a brand integrates itself into that moment, they stand out. Which is why brands use celebrities on television, for example. When you have a whole ad block, the brands that have a celebrity endorser tend to stand out. So it’s all about cutting through the noise and reaching people on social media to scale.

Has there been any negative feedback about the #ad tags or other designations placed on one of your posts that separates it as a paid placement? Has that been a hindrance at all in producing positive campaign results?

SR: We’ve done 24,000 endorsements, and we haven’t had any negative feedback to date. Mostly because the ads or the endorsements are very integrated into the celebrity’s brand and great pieces of content that are being distributed to the audiences. In fact, we see the opposite… all of our ads get retweeted or liked, commented on, interacted with. We do such a good job of matching the celebrity and brand and creating good content that it’s usually a very rewarding experience.

Can you explain the Consumer Influence Index and how it’s compiled? What enables some celebrities to be so highly influential?

SR: It’s all about your ability to drive movement, or traffic. That’s a function of how engaged you are with your audience. If Kim Kardashian tweets something that might have a different effect than if I tweeted it. She might get more people to click on it and more people to visit the piece of content that she’s alluding to. It’s all about your ability to drive eyeballs and traffic to another location on the web.

How is the pay scale for celebrities determined? Is this based on their “influence factor”? Or is it based on the amount of followers they have, how many clicks they produce, or what?

SR: It’s based on a few factors … how much traffic they can drive. How engaged or influential they are with their audience. We search for these signals and then we price accordingly, based on real value.

What do you make of the Charlie Sheen phenomenon?

SR: I think it’s a perfect testament that celebrities sell and cut through the noise. It’s very clear through the number of followers that he got in a short amount of time, that people are on Twitter to hear from celebrities. They are on Facebook to hear from celebrities. It’s a very valuable content segment. There is an entire industry of broadcast television based around it.

It’s safe to say that where the Internet is headed is that social networks are starting to look like TV networks. You have the ABCs and NBCs of the world, and you also have the Twitters and Facebooks on the world. At the end of the day, their value to the users is going to based on the quality of the content. Celebrity generated content is high quality and engaging, so I think that Charlie Sheen is just a testament to why people are on Twitter. The big reason they are on Twitter is to follow celebrities and hear from them.

I think a lot of people in the social media and online marketing world had a “wow” moment with the Internships.com campaign with Charlie Sheen and his “#TigerBloodIntern.” The numbers are staggering … over 95,000 clicks in an hour, 450,000 clicks in two days, over 80,000 internship applications, and 1 million visitors to the Internships.com website. Did you always know your services had that kind of potential impact and reach, or was that a “wow” moment for you guys too?

SR: We always knew that celebrities deliver results. We always knew the potential of celebrity distribution. It’s just that Charlie Sheen is a little more public than other campaigns. Charlie is just one celebrity out of the thousand that we work with, so those results are scalable, they are not a one-time thing, we can replicate those results multiple times for advertisers.

So how would you compare the Charlie Sheen campaign to some of your others in terms of size, scope and success. As you said, was it just more public, or was it more successful and larger than others … and in general what do you consider a successful campaign?

SR: I think those results are very successful. Definitely we can achieve the same results using multiple celebrities. Those were typical results for a campaign for us, the only thing that made it a unique case was that one celebrity was able to drive that much value. Usually it takes multiple celebrities to drive that much value.

How does it compare then to average sized campaigns not in terms of results, but in terms of placement, planning, strategy and so forth?

SR: It’s very similar, a very similar process. The only difference with that specific campaign was that it was just one celebrity. As far as the process and integration, the other unique attribute is that the brand was a little more integrated with the celebrity’s brand. So we added the #Tigerbloodintern to follow up on the tiger blood meme. There was a little more brand integration happening versus a lot of other campaigns which are sort of “hey, come check this out.” There was more of an association with the conversation around Charlie.

There are lots of buzz words in online marketing — including buzz — but also viral marketing, going viral, and all of that. Ad.ly is one of the first successful platforms for accomplishing that for brands … Looking ahead though, are you sticking with what you’re doing now in terms of strategy and placement or what other kinds of marketing and outreach will you be expanding to in the future?

SR: We want to be wherever the celebrity and their audience is. Our plan is to always grow with the celebrities and when they start using new platforms and adopting new platforms, we will too and create ad products for those platforms. That’s our core focus.

Your CEO, Arnie Gullov-Singh, has talked about creating a “Super Bowl moment” for advertisers and brands. Can you explain that a bit more?

SR: Those results that we drove are very hard to come by. They’re very hard to create. The reason we drew an analogy to the Super Bowl is that there are only a few buying opportunities per year in advertising which can deliver those results. If you take a Super Bowl ad, it’s going to cost a whole lot more than that tweet from Charlie Sheen. It’s amazing that one tweet from Charlie was able to take a start up and make it a brand overnight. Those results only happen around events like the Super Bowl, so the effects are comparable for a far lower price point.

What were some of the steps you took to help Sheen’s Twitter account grow so fast? Obviously those results wouldn’t be possible without the millions of followers that he had. I know you helped to set up and verify the account, show him the ropes of using Twitter, and so forth. How did that all play out and what did you do to help make it happen?

SR: They came to us wanting to create a Twitter account and learn more about Twitter. We educated them and got them set up with a Twitter account which is verified and owned by them. From there, it was Charlie’s content, that sort of controversial and comedic stuff that he was tweeting, that allowed him to grow so fast. Everyone was retweeting him and following him. He grew virally because he was interesting to people at that moment in time, it was like all eyes were on him. What we did was just helped to get him on Twitter and advised him on best practices. Then we came in later down the road and monetized that audience he created.

So it was his people that actually reached out to you guys, and he was joining Twitter right from the start looking for that kind of opportunity?

SR: Exactly, he was looking for a way to speak directly to his fans without the filters of the media.

Could you disclose how much Sheen earned for the Internships.com campaign?

SR: Uh, I can’t. (laughs)

What are the plans to have Sheen take part in future campaigns?

SR: He’s very attractive to brands so we’re always vetting deals with brands to work with him. So it’s all about finding the right brand and celebrity fit.

How do you try to build off the success you’ve had lately? In a way, the impact of working with Charlie Sheen on this campaign has sort of been your own Super Bowl moment.

SR: Yea, definitely it was our own Super Bowl moment. I think just doing what we do every day. We have a great platform for matching celebrities with brands and executing creative copy, and then tracking the results. It’s the focus of continuing to grow with brands, selling more brands, and getting them up with the program.

Jake Emen is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md., with experience covering sporting events and local news stories for a number of online publications. He also has a wide range of professional experience with online marketing and runs the website ProBoxing-Fans.com.