Four years ago Washer, an amateur standup comedian who has written jokes for David Letterman, was working in the communications group at IBM Corp.'s mainframe division. The group constantly battled the popular perception that mainframes were overpriced, outdated technologies. A particular concern was engaging the attention of young technology professionals who were needed to keep the platform relevant.
Washer hit upon the idea for a lighthearted video series. He asked a simple question: What would happen if you sold mainframes by going through the phone book's white pages and cold-called people at random? That thought developed into a plan for a broader spoof on the clichés of the b-to-b sales process, such as motivational speeches, tired metaphors, high-pressure tactics and the like.
Washer enlisted Bob Hoey, who then was head of sales in IBM's Systems & Technology Group, which sold mainframes. Hoey proved to be the perfect subject to play himself, intoning with deadpan earnestness such phrases as, “In life, there are really only two kinds of people: farmers and ranchers; the mainframe is like a factory.”
The video wasn't intended to be shown outside IBM, but the reception at two internal meetings was so enthusiastic that the creators took a chance on YouTube, then a fledgling video network. “Art of the Sale” racked up a quarter-of-a-million views quickly, as well as coverage in mainstream media outlets like the Chicago Sun-Times and San Francisco Chronicle. Traffic to the IBM mainframe website skyrocketed 25-fold.
The team set to work on sequels, eventually turning out six episodes that have collectively gathered more than half-a-million views on YouTube and hundreds of thousands more on other networks (my personal favorites are No. 2 and No. 5).
More important for the careers of both Washer and Hoey was the reception within IBM. The video series was so effective at illustrating how not to make a sale that it is now required viewing for new employees. “Art of the Sale” was also a groundbreaking social media kit that opened the doors for other grassroots experiments. IBM today is a leader in the use of social marketing.
Yes, social media has been very good to Tim Washer. He was promoted to manager of social media communications at IBM and just this past spring took a job as senior manager of social media at Cisco Systems. The video series gave him the visibility that prompted Cisco to knock on his door, he said.
Bob Hoey hasn't made out too badly either. He recently was named general manager of IBM Global Technology Services, one of the company's most visible business units.
I don't mean to imply that social media activity is a ticket to promotions and raises, but it doesn't hurt. Take a chance, learn something new and place yourself in the spotlight of the hottest marketing trend in years. The recruiters will come calling, and that's never a bad thing for your career.
Paul Gillin is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the "New Channels" column in BtoB.