Viral marketing with the creator of ‘The Oatmeal’ (SXSW2011)

Meeting Matthew Inman, you’d never guess that this shy, slightly built 27-year-old is the caustic genius behind The Oatmeal, one of the web’s most phenomenally successful humour sites. You’d expect someone brash, angry, and overweight (like his characters). But then he opens his mouth, and the audience quickly goes from chuckling to screaming with laughter.

Speaking at the interactive portion of the South by South West (SXSW) conference, Inman shared a few of his experiences in starting The Oatmeal, which in less than two years has generated a quarter of a billion views.

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Inman opens with a confession: “Disappointingly I don’t have that many ‘secrets’ – so I will just share a bunch of examples of what worked for me.” And so begins an hilarious trip down memory lane.

After working for several years as a web designer and developer – including a stint at – he started his own dating site in 2007 named Mingle2 (which he claims to have coded and launched in just 66,5 hours). The comics and quizzes that would later morph into The Oatmeal started as viral marketing devices for Mingle2.

These devices – like a blog post titled “How dating my ex was like playing Doom on Nightmare mode” and the now legendary quiz “How many cannibals would my body feed?” – proved phenomenally popular. He also created a parody dating site called Zombie Harmony that, at one point, outranked the giant eHarmony on Google.

Within 6 months Mingle2 had over 100 000 users and was generating over 2 million page impressions a month. It was also ranked number one in Google searches for “Online Dating,” “Free Online Dating,” and several other phrases. “I used bears with diahorrea, dinosaurs and zombies to build links for a commercial property, ” says Inman, with obvious relish.

After Mingle2 was sold and merged with a competing site (JustSayHi), Inman decided he didn’t want to work for someone else again, but was tired of using viral elements to sell things – although he enjoyed making them. He realised that the viral elements could be a business in themselves, and so The Oatmeal was born.

Inman believes that part of the reason his work is so popular because it touches on common annoyances (what he calls “gripes”), like how much working on a keyboard has destroyed his handwriting or why some emails go unanswered.

And while The Oatmeal is frequently bizarre or outlandish, there’s a calculation at work beneath the surface. For instance Inman reveals that, “I keep my characters simple, bloated, baby people. This keeps people from developing a bias – they can project their own humour into the character.”

Inman emphasises that it’s the inherent quality of his work that makes it viral, rather than some social media trickery. “People seem to like my stuff and so they share it.” That said he does use social media extensively. “I used social news sites to build an audience – Digg, Reddit and Stumbleupon. I found Stumbleupon to be one of the fairest. They send me traffic for years and years after I submit a link. Digg is all or nothing.”

He emphasises the importance of a good headline when it comes to Twitter. Great examples include “8 websites you need to stop building,” “If you do this in an email, I hate you” and “How to tell if your cat is plotting to kill you” which was, in fact, the first comic on The Oatmeal. Without any visual cues, the title has to carry the whole comic on Twitter, and tempt people into both clicking and retweeting.

But it isn’t all cool manipulation and metrics – Inman is clearly out to have fun and it just rubs off on social media. For instance he noticed that Tumblr (a blogging platform) was having a lot of downtime, but that they didn’t have a “Fail Whale” mascot like Twitter. So he drew one and put it up on The Oatmeal.

Literally within hours Tumblr’s CEO had phoned him and asked him for permission to use the mascot on their site. “So now every time they go down, which is often, I get a huge surge of traffic. Please don’t fix your servers!” quips Inman.

Another piece of tactical genius was his tweet at Natalie Portman just after she won the Oscar for “Black Swan”. Inman tweeted “Best cunnilingus in a leading role! NICE ONE NATALIE” – and his site was soon inundated with traffic.

What makes these stunts work though, is that they are organic and without premeditation. Inman’s mischief isn’t self serving – he does things because he finds them funny. For instance when he found that PETA were linking to his comic “5 reasons pigs are more awesome than you” he redirected all traffic coming via PETA to “Why we should be eating horses instead of riding them”.

In another stunt he retooled his famous “How many 5-year-olds could you take in a fight?” quiz as “How many Justin Biebers could you take in a fight?” But the true stroke of genius came when he realised that you could not only auto-tweet the result of the quiz (a feature he builds into all his quizzes), but that you could make them all replies to @justinbieber. “And so every day for a year tens of thousands of people tweeted @JustinBieber how many of him they could take in a fight” says Inman, grinning impishly.

And that is Inman’s secret – he is having fun and we are all along for the ride. Inman now employees his family to run the merchandising end of The Oatmeal, which generates 80% of his income. Their output has increased the postal traffic at the small town he hails from by over 700%.

And so, at 27, Inman is already a self made man several times over. He is pretty much the embodiment of the modern American Dream. Who would have thought that included punching dolphins in the mouth?

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