For five weeks, I had an alter ego on Instagram, and he was a real snake. Not just any snake, but an eight foot long Egyptian King Cobra named Elvis. After a storm caused some water damage to his enclosure, Elvis escaped from Mike Kennedy’s Dragon Ranch Preserve. His escape was all over the local media.
Elvis is of course very real, but as you probably guessed, he didn’t have the ability to post to Instagram. So I took it upon myself to give Elvis a voice and share his wild adventures while he was on the run.
Your immediate question might be why. Why would a seasoned entrepreneur, marketer, and UCF professor take the time to do this? What could I possibly hope to accomplish from creating a parody account for an escaped cobra?
I had a few reasons for doing it, but the primary reason being that I thought this would be a fresh and unconventional way to teach my students at UCF some marketing and startup lessons.
Here are some of the lessons I hoped Elvis would teach them.
Capitalize On Trends
The very creation of the Elvis IG account is an example of capitalizing on a trend. From the moment the story broke that Elvis had escaped his enclosure, he was the talk of the town. Updates on his whereabouts were discussed each morning and evening on all of the local news stations and mentioned periodically on national news outlets. The Onion even weighed in with their special spin. Many locals and tourists took to various social media platforms to express their fears or excitement about the escape using a number of cobra-related hashtags.
Soo… have we found that cobra yet?! Because this is my 3rd day in the house, I can't be getting out of shape over here…
— Tobias Harris (@tobias31) September 6, 2015
Unless you have Olivia Pope’s flawless media skills, this kind of buzz can be incredibly difficult for a business to generate on its own. But simply taking advantage of something else that is creating a media firestorm on its own is a much easier task. So when these opportunities come up, it is important to think about how you can use it to your advantage.
In this case, I was capitalizing on the escape by having him appear on another Instagram account that I created about a year ago, @LakeEola.
Now, just because something is trending does not mean that it is the right opportunity for you. Find a way to align it with your brand. A single trending opportunity may garner some attention for your business, but you have to be sure it is the right kind of attention and not just a distraction.
The community had a pretty good idea as to where Elvis was (generally), but no one could say with complete certainty. So why not have him play a little hide-and-seek at Lake Eola? After all, he was known as the hide-and-seek champ. Of course, I wanted to do this in a fun way, not an alarming one.
Using Photoshop, I created a couple of images of Elvis at and around Lake Eola Park. I was immediately able to see that Lake Eola account followers were engaging. In the month of September, I averaged 6 comments per post. The first 3 posts that included Elvis averaged 28 comments. Elvis clearly has fans.
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Seeing that the reaction was so strong, I decided to give him his own account. After all, he was a fun addition to the Lake Eola account, but those followers had demonstrated an interest in regularly seeing pics of Lake Eola, not a king cobra. Which brings me to my next point…
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First to market
Was I the first Orlando Cobra? No. Between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, there were a few accounts within hours of the escape, but that didn’t deter me. In fact, it excited me to see that they already had people following and interacting with them. This told me that people were interested in and entertained by the idea of a parody cobra account. From there, I just had to determine how I would be different or better than the others in order to stand out.
I decided I would focus on Instagram because of its visual appeal and on what Orlandoans that locals (myself included) love because that would set the account apart. I created my own custom photos and called out or highlighted a new business or person in each photo to keep everyone’s attention. This also helped to broaden my reach as people were eager to repost images that included them or their favorite places.
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Find Your Niche
Everyone has ideas, and many people chase the wrong ones. By wrong, I don’t mean they are bad, just wrong for the person chasing them. A good idea is one that not only the market is interested in, but also one that is a good fit for you, the entrepreneur. I knew that I would likely grow a larger following faster if I decided to take the cobra to the theme parks, because there are legions of people that are diehard Disney and Universal fans. I don’t have anything against theme parks, but they just aren’t my thing. I took a route I knew I’d enjoy instead, so I highlighted cool local people, places, and things that I love about Orlando. This made it fun for me, which made it easier for me to stay interested in it—especially when it went on much longer than anticipated (thanks to Elvis eluding captivity for 37 days).
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Don’t just pick what’s popular. Go with your gut—if it’s something you enjoy doing, chances are someone else will enjoy it too. Also, when you are doing something that you enjoy, it makes it just a little easier to show up every day.
Find Your Following (Know your Audience)
It would have been awesome to be able to sit back and passively watch my Instagram following grow, but building a following is something that you must work on actively. Some will say that if you have killer content, followers will just appear out of thin air. I call BS! Awesome (however you define it) content should be the cornerstone of any social media account, but it is only one piece of the marketing equation.
Most of the time, there are a number of strategies being deployed to garner people’s attention and convert them into followers. Marketing isn’t magic, but great marketing can be magical.
For @OrlandoKingCobra, I knew my time was limited. After all, how long could Elvis really stay on the lam? I decided to take an accelerated approach in growing my audience. The first step was to target the followers of other cobra parody accounts. These people had already demonstrated their interest in at least one of a few similar accounts, so the likelihood that I could convert them into my followers was strong. And since all of the cobra accounts were less than a couple days old, I knew that their followers of those accounts were, at the very least, recently active on Instagram.
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Next, I set my sights on the people who followed the accounts of the various businesses that I was going to highlight in my posts. They might not have an interest in Orlando King Cobra, but they had some interest in the other half of the equation – the businesses in my posts. I hoped that the specific post would grab their attention and convince them to follow along. Now, rather than just following all the followers of those accounts, which is pretty easy to do with a few apps, I wanted to target the followers who had been active recently. To do this, I would look at the recent posts by those accounts and then follow the recent commenters and likers of those posts. Periodically, I would unfollow accounts that had not reciprocated and the repeat the process. Using this method, @OrlandoKingCobra grew to 3,800 followers in about five weeks time. The account had over 25,589 post likes as well as 2,191 post comments on its 155 images. Not bad for five weeks, right?
As I mentioned earlier, I started the Lake Eola account just over one year ago. That account has over 12,000 followers and it happened to be a great leverage point for @OrlandoKingCobra. The audiences line up; after all, Lake Eola is a favorite landmark for many locals and the Orlando King Cobra was quickly adding to our local Orlando flavor. I had already tested the waters of the Lake Eola account before I had even created the Orlando King Cobra account, so I knew that the audience there was entertained by the hide-and-seek hijinks. Fortunately, Lake Eola also fit in really well with my strategy of utilizing favorite Orlando locales to set my account apart from the others. Five of my first ten posts featured Lake Eola. Those posts obviously fit in well with the content already being posted to Lake Eola, so it was easy to cross-promote it. Leveraging Lake Eola gave the Orlando King Cobra a real slithering start! Leverage shouldn’t be a one-way street. While my goal of leveraging the Lake Eola account to help kick-start @OrlandoKingCobra, I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t also beneficial for Lake Eola. When it was all said and done, @OrlandoKingCobra got its kick-start and Lake Eola clearly benefited from the engagement that took place through @OrlandoKingCobra posts. Six out of the top twenty commented posts on the Lake Eola account featured @OrlandoKingCobra.
Fishing vs. Whaling
My focus was mostly on small fish: events, people, and businesses around Orlando. I thought about the types of businesses and events that I could feature. I took into account their social media following and the entertainment value they had. But I did go after a couple whales with large social followings too. Although he was not initially on my radar, when I noticed that Dwight Howard started following, I knew I had to take a big swing. I put together an image that included him hoping that he would interact with it, or possibly even repost it. Unfortunately, that never happened, but if it had, it would’ve been a big payoff!
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Often times we set our sights only on the whales. We think to ourselves, if I just get that one big break, whatever that might be, then I will be set. And often that is true—if it lands. But, more often than not, success is built on fishing. If you forget to fish, you will starve before you get a whale in sight. If Dwight, FullSail, or a few others would have reposted my content, it would’ve been big; but they didn’t. All of the growth from this account came in steadily from fishing, none from whaling.
Give before you get
From the beginning, I crowd-sourced ideas as to where Elvis should make appearances. The ideas mostly came from Orlando residents suggesting their fave local hangouts. As the account grew, companies were asking for the Orlando Cobra to make “appearances” at their local boutiques, auto dealerships, restaurants or bars, and even a local newspaper. This was to be expected, but what caught me off guard was how many requests came from accounts that didn’t even follow @OrlandoKingCobra—or when asked, weren’t willing to repost if I did a post for them. I was offering free marketing to a targeted audience that I had put time and energy into cultivating, and they were not willing to reciprocate.
Think of it as a system of debits and credits. In this case, people were clearly willing to take, but were not willing to give. A gesture as small as following someone can go a long way, especially if you want something from them. Be sure to pay into your network before you start trying to make withdrawals.
Like most startups, I had limited resources—especially time. Tons of local and some national news outlets were covering the story about the actual escape, but I didn’t have the time to actively try to get the attention of all of the local news outlets. I had to be very deliberate in my approach. Instead of giving each station 20 percent of my effort, I focused the majority of my energy on one station, Fox 35. So why Fox?
- Amy Kaufeldt, John Brown, Sonni Abbatta, Dana Jay and Kayla O’Brien are all Fox 35 personalities that are active on social media.
- In the morning NBC, CBS, and ABC go to national programming, but Fox stays local with their Good Day Orlando (GDO).
- John Brown and GDO had recently gone viral over a comment made about the Kardashians. Could and would John get upset about a cobra social media account, too? (Another “non-news” story?) If so, imagine the viral opportunities.
- GDO has the Trending Now segment which Kayla O’Brien covers – you guessed it – Internet trends.
- Fox does a crossover segment with the Orlando Sentinel, so it has the potential to get two birds with one stone.
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The targeted approach paid off. Kayla O’Brien and John Brown featured my account on their Trending Now segment on Good Day Orlando. Thanks Fox35!
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve had students and other aspiring entrepreneurs approach me to share their “amazing ideas” with me. While I’m always happy to listen, I quickly turn the conversation towards what is being done with the idea. The truth is, everyone has great ideas; what sets people apart are what they are willing to do to make them a reality. As the conversation carries on, I often hear “If I had this ________ (insert money, skill, partner, etc), I could make it a reality.” Rather than working to tackle the obstacles one by one, they list the obstacles. When I ask what has been done to overcome any of those obstacles, the answer is usually a list of reasons why none of them have been tackled.
Prior to Elvis’ escape, I had zero experience with Photoshop. Needless to say, my skills weren’t stellar, but I didn’t wait to perfect my Photoshop skills before I began posting. Instead, I made my (at best) questionable quality Photoshopped images part of the fun. Since my strength wasn’t in creating the stellar professional images, I made the fact that they were bad part of the entertainment and focused on funny captions and settings for the cobra as well as being as interactive with account followers.
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Often, if we think creatively, we can turn our obstacles into our differentiators.
In the startup community, many end up chasing the “badges of honor” of no sleep, poor diet, no life, no exercise, and excess caffeine. In other words, complete martyrdom. Like most achievements in life, startups require sacrifice. Sometimes that means working crazy hours for a period of time, but there has to be a reasonable end in sight. Some people have the tolerance to operate like that for extended periods of time; in general, however, it is unhealthy. Only one thing happens after burning the candle at both ends for extended periods of time: the flame goes out.
That’s a Wrap!
After nearly 40 days of excitement, Elvis was finally captured. While I had a blast with Elvis all across the City Beautiful in a virtual capacity, in reality, he traveled about 1,500 ft to a neighbors house where he crawled under a warm clothing dryer and camped out.
So who am I?
All along this journey, I made it a point to not directly disclose my real identity, but I did enjoy dropping hints along the way…
Early on I featured Lineage Coffee Roasting which happens to be owned by a member of my church.
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He dropped by my all-time favorite Yoga studio Orlando Power Yoga
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Visited my wife in our backyard for a J’s Everyday Fashion photo shoot
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And a hint for my friend Jim Hobart with Macbeth Photo the day after he had visited my wife and I at our home..
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And of course this shot, which was taken in my UCF classroom on a night we were discussing some of his marketing lessons..
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While many of you have known me as an 8 ft King Cobra named Elvis, my name is actually Joshua Johnson. Learn Everywhere co-founder, UCF marketing professor, Rebuild Globally board member, Rethink Homelessness Lead Advocate, and all around Lover of the City Beautiful. It’s nice to finally meet you.
There might still be a couple cool Orlando King Cobra things in the works, so if you enjoyed following along, I encourage you to sign up for the Orlando King Cobra email list . Don’t worry, this cobra doesn’t ssssspam ;)