Delicious creamy German potato salad dressed in mayo infused with mustard and parsley.

Reflections: The Week A $45,000 Potato Salad Stared Into My Soul

Delicious creamy German potato salad dressed in mayo infused with mustard and parsley.If you’re a regular at this cozy watering hole we call The Internet, you’re probably sick of hearing about potato salad right now. The culprit: this Potato Salad Kickstarter, in which a $10 request to make a potato salad fell into the hands of some mischievous folks who dwell in the silliest reaches of the Internet. After CNET picked up the tasty Kickstarter, the project went viral, amassing $45,000 in donations and counting. All I can say is that better be the tastiest potato salad known to mankind.

It’s one of those Bizarre Internet Things that couldn’t happen under any other circumstances. But it happened: we, the people, paid some guy $45,000 and counting to make a potato salad.

A fool and his money…you know the rest.

As someone who isn’t a huge fan of mayo, I’m pretty sick of potato salad too. But as a content marketer, I’m enraptured by The Potato Salad Saga. My job is to get people to see things on the Internet. This whole potato salad incident has made me feel woefully inept. The potato salad campaign stares deep into my soul, ruthlessly mocking me, shredding any and all confidence I had in my ability to do my job.

Here I am working 40 hours a week at a marketing agency, and some pile of potatoes (“possibly with dill,” to be fair) swoops in and steals the spotlight. It ain’t right. What does this potato salad have that I don’t?

A whole lot, it turns out. What follows are some of the profound lessons that Zack “Danger” Brown’s Kickstarter campaign has taught me. They are best digested with a bowl of potato salad.

Marketing Takeaways from The Infamous $45,000 Potato Salad Kickstarter

Be Inclusive

Some people see Kickstarter as a “money for nothing” platform, where all you need to get funding is a plan and a dream. This campaign is a brilliant send-up of the hopelessly optimistic projects that litter the Kickstarter landscape. Crucially, Brown lets his readers in on the joke. His delivery openly mocks more “legitimate” campaigns (I use that term loosely), which expect egregious amounts of money for similarly underdeveloped projects.

The difference is, Brown’s potato salad campaign flaunts its complete uselessness up front. As a result, donations to the campaign come from people who are clearly in on, and participating in, the joke. We’re all in this movement together.

The first two lines in the description:

Basically I’m just making potato salad. I haven’t decided what kind yet.


Sample stretch goals:

$250 – Better mayonnaise (from the natural foods section)

$300 – Call a chef to get a better recipe

The lesson: don’t try to pull one over on your customers – include them instead. Give them a way to participate and own part of the project, and they will reward you with fierce loyalty.

Personality Counts

Most of the content marketing efforts shoveled out into the world are ruthlessly boring. This is especially true for writers in the crowded marketing / SEO space. We pick a topic, then push out some lowest-common-denominator prose that appeals to the ‘everymarketer’ and call it a day. Hooray! I published content! Traffic and sales should start rolling in any minute now…

It doesn’t work like that. Producing accurate-but-forgettable content may attract traffic, but in a noisy and competitive space, it certainly won’t hold attention. They’ll lift the necessary information from your article, then forget you ever existed the minute they close that browser tab.

Potato Salad is so memorable because the author’s personality shines through, right down to his byline: Zack Danger Brown. Zack is the kind of person for whom making potato salad is dangerous, uncharted territory. This doesn’t resonate with everyone, but at least it doesn’t resonate with no one, either.

The lesson: If you write like a robot, you’ll never capture the attention of the real human being sitting on the other side of the screen. It’s better to be funny, vulnerable, opinionated, etc. and capture 50% of your audience, than lack any of those qualities and watch 100% of your visitors slip back into the clutches of the Internet, never to return.

Virality Is Hard, and More Importantly, Utterly Unpredictable

“Let’s do a joke about potato salad. It’ll be huge.”

There’s  10 words I never want to hear in a strategy meeting. And yet, marketers everywhere are inundated with requests – from both clients and managers – to make something “go viral.” In general, this request is a huge crock of…potato salad.

Making something go viral (on purpose) requires resonant content that is impossible to ignore. Even then, a healthy dash of dumb luck is involved: there’s no guarantee people will discover it or make it spread. (By the way – if you’re publishing to a huge following to get the ball rolling, that’s not virality, that’s just leveraging your current audience. Looking at you, Coca Cola video team.)

When you say “make this go viral,” you’re asking for colossal returns off a minimal amount of work. But, in content marketing as much as anything else, you get what you pay for.

The lesson: You should never expect something to go viral; that’s simply not in your control. Instead, expect returns proportional to the effort you put into the project in the first place. If something does take off, well – that’s a bonus.

Don’t Imitate

Have you heard of the avalanche of food-related fundraisers flooding Kickstarter since the $45,000 Potato Salad became A Thing? No, of course you haven’t, because those are all cheap, humorless, uninspired knockoffs of the original. These people are clearly trying to ride Potato Salad’s coattails (potato skins?), ignoring the fact that Potato Salad Kickstarter captured our hearts because it was so completely unexpected. Piggybacking that concept is like watching a YouTube video, then repeating your favorite jokes in the comments section. Whether you know it or not, people despise your complete lack of originality. You didn’t come up with the concept yourself, and you certainly don’t deserve to reap the rewards.

The lesson: the thing that worked for somebody else probably won’t work for you. Don’t latch on to a competitor’s tactics just because it worked for them. You’ll sink time and resources producing a piece of content that’s already been done before. Instead, make something new and amazing, the kind of content that only you can create. By charting your own path, you’ll gain respect from likeminded individuals.

Do it first, do it best, or don’t do it at all.

Don’t Sell Out

Unfortunately, there’s a scandal brewing in Potato Salad Land. The latest project update, just four lines long, contains two links to local businesses – a restaurant and a photography studio. What gained traction as a joke transitioned into a crude, lazy advertising ploy.

And boy, did that strike a nerve.

Backers (people who already invested – so think of them as paying customers) ripped into Brown for the update. The joke all along was that Brown’s project was quite clearly undeserving of financial support. So when he leveraged his unexpected success to go for an earnest money grab, he ruffled quite a few feathers. Miffed by the betrayal, backers pulled their donations, which aren’t committed to the pot until the fundraising period closes. That update cost him $25,000 in withdrawn support – pledges went from $70,000 to $45,000 overnight.

Over 35% of his earnings – gone, all because he betrayed the trust of his audience.

As marketers, we can’t do this to our audience. We can’t promise one thing and then pull a bait-and-switch. People are very protective of their money, and even more protective of their pride. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being conned. So if you try to pull a fast one on them and they catch on, they’ll run for the hills.

The lesson: Trust is good. Tricks are bad. Be honest about your offer. People don’t mind being sold to, especially if what you’re selling has undeniable value – then it’s a win-win! What people hate is being lied to. Trumpet your services from the hilltops, but don’t claim to offer something you can’t deliver. That’s a recipe for turning optimistic leads into grumpy, complaining, resource-sucking customers.

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