Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Accidental Viral Marketing Lessons from ‘Welcome to Night Vale’

“If you see something, say nothing, and drink to forget.”

No, that’s not some catchy slogan for a new liquor; that’s just one of the many memorable quotes from the runaway podcast hit “Welcome to Night Vale.”

If you’re active on Tumblr, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of this podcast. For everyone who hasn’t, this supernatural dark comedy podcast delivers news for the fictional town of Night Vale. The host of the show, Cecil Baldwin, recounts the strange happenings of the town which range from endearing levitating cats in the radio station bathroom to the crop of wheat and wheat by-products that morph into venomous snakes and attack the town.

But don’t worry, that’s just a normal day in Night Vale.

do not approach the dog park

The podcast launched in mid-2012 and by June of 2013 amassed about 150,000 downloads. And those aren’t numbers to scoff about. But about a week later, the podcast had gained an additional 150,000 downloads and shot up to the number one podcast on iTunes.

So what happened? The show and its growing fandom exploded on Tumblr. Most credit fans of the TV show Hannibal for getting it started. But once thousands of Tumblr users saw it overtaking their dashboards, they had to check it out.

This is one of the best definitions of “going viral.” In fact, I would claim that it’s the best use of viral marketing since Stan’s Pawn Shop released a virulent strain of Ebola back in ’98.” (Yep, “Night Vale” even pokes fun at viral marketing.)

So what was it about this particular podcast that resonated with Tumblr users? Let’s discuss.

Deliver great quality

From the pilot episode, “Welcome to Night Vale” delivers great, funny content. The podcasts are well-written, the narrator, Cecil, is well-spoken and in character, and the sound quality is top notch. This was not a podcast that Commonplace Books scraped together quickly; it’s clear that plenty of writing and planning went into each and every episode.

It’s the first rule of viral marketing: if it’s not good (or not so-bad-it’s-good) people aren’t going to talk about it and they aren’t going to share it. Focusing on creating a quality product with possible wide appeal is the best first step in going viral.

Have a unique flavor

I say this with all the love in my heart, but “Welcome to Night Vale” is a little strange. And it’s supposed to be. The citizens of Night Vale are subjected to really bizarre things and the podcast feature an eclectic cast of characters. It’s bizarre. But the supernatural/Twin Peaks/NPR mash-up is unlike anything that’s popular right now.

And everything about it is a little bizarre. They have funny proverbs after the credits. My favorite one (so far) is:

night vvale proverb 12

 Proverb image by lycanthropuppy on tumblr.

The description copy of the podcasts is always funny and can sometimes even get a little meta:

welcome to night vale episode description

Fans can even follow the podcast on Twitter and Facebook for tiny doses of bizarre in between episodes.

Being a carbon copy of some other brand or company isn’t going to get you recognition. Finding your own unique voice and message will connect with potential customers and fans. Going off the beaten path is the only way that your brand will stick with someone.

Bring in help

Another reason why “Welcome to Night Vale” is popular is because the podcast brings in so much extra talent. “Night Vale” features a weather report in every episode. But it’s not actually weather. Instead it’s just a quirky song from an indie band. So not only is it bizarre, delightful, and a way to discover new artists, but Commonplace Books can use the musician’s fans to boost awareness of their own podcast.

At the end of the majority of the podcasts, they give you an email address if you’d like to contribute your talents to the show or just say hi. By giving fans the option to help, they let their fans form an even stronger connection to the show.

Any kind of successful marketing campaign takes a ton of time, effort, and man power. If you need extra hands, ask employees from other departments if they can spare a little time to help you out. You also might want to consider partnering with other non-competitor small businesses to host special events or create videos.

Don’t push your products

One of the reasons that I enjoy “Welcome to Night Vale” is because the creators rarely come out and directly ask you to buy anything. Commonplace Books plugs their paid products at the end of every podcast, but it’s well-done and doesn’t feel like an obligation in the least.

Instead, they’ve created a loyal group of fans who will buy their merchandise and donate to the show out of love for the podcast and the creators. In fact, after the podcast went viral on Tumblr, Commonplace Books sold out of “Welcome to Night Vale” t-shirts. Twice.

You can check out the Commonplace Books tag on Tumblr to see fans with their purchases and sheer joy that they were able to support the podcast they love.

Shoving your products down your customers’ throats certainly won’t make your content go viral. Consider the popular series Will It Blend? from Blendtec. Are you aware that it’s a Blendtec blender? Sure. But the host never tells you to buy a blender, and you get to see something get obliterated. When creating your own marketing campaigns make sure that your company is featured, but don’t go for the hard sell. Let the word of mouth bring the customers to you!


Another reason why Night Vale is so successful is because it’s not a single episode and the audience knows that more is just around the corner. Commonplace Books releases new podcasts on the 1st and 15th of every month and later episodes refer to events from previous podcasts. This means that fans have two whole weeks to discuss what happened and create more fan-made works. Just check out the Welcome to Night Vale tag on Tumblr. (Content may not be entirely safe for work, but it’s usually just fine.)

all hail the glow cloud

 All Hail the Glow Cloud by beabravo on tumblr.

 While the serialization technique may not work for all viral marketing campaigns, it’s definitely a great tip for all marketing campaigns. Suspense and anticipation build interest. So the next time you’re launching a new product, adding a new feature to your software, or introducing a new drink to your menu, tease it. Show blurred pictures on your social media accounts or release a little bit of info every day.

Now that Welcome to Night Vale has gone viral (or is going viral, it doesn’t look the popularity has plateaued yet), Commonplace Books is planning more merchandise and a book about the strange dessert town. And as long as Cecil Baldwin continues to deliver bizarre and off-kilter news every two weeks, fans will be eager to tune in and listen.

Real quick, here’s a recap of tactics you can take for your own marketing efforts:

  • Don’t skimp on quality. If something is good, people are going to want to share it and talk about it. Take your time to write smart content, book your venues, and plan extensively.
  • Find your unique voice. If you mimic everyone else, you’re never going to stand out from everyone else. Are you quirky? Sassy? Friendly? Whatever you are, be different.
  • Ask for help. Undertaking marketing campaigns takes time and effort. So if you can crowd source content from your fans, do it! Your customers will feel a stronger tie to your final product.
  • Don’t go for the hard sell. Blatant advertising = disinterested customers. Strike a balance between brand exposure and infomercial.
  • Build anticipation. Teasing parts of your products or building up interest of your new release is a great way to get word of mouth circulating with your fans. And the more they talk, the more excited they’ll get about the final reveal.

Following these five tips is a great way to getting a head start on becoming the next “Welcome to Night Vale.” There’s never a guarantee that your content will go viral, but if you’re looking to make a splash on Tumblr, I would suggest checking out these brands that are nailing it on the social network.

Also, stay away from the dog park.

So until next time: Goodnight, Night Vale. Goodnight.

Have you heard of ‘Welcome to Night Vale?’ If so, what was it that made you start listening? Anything you would like to add?

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