Claude Galipeau couldn't help himself. "Did you join our poll?" he blurted to a group of strangers on an elevator in Toronto last month, adding quickly that he was with Salter Street Films, the Halifax-based company that makes CBC Television's comedy hit This Hour has 22 Minutes. "Yup," each replied. "We all did."
So did another 1,043,925 people. They were all responding to 22 Minutes star Rick Mercer's televised invitation Nov. 13 to vote, via the Internet, on whether Alliance Leader Stockwell Day should change his first name to Doris. Ninety per cent of the respondents favoured the suggestion; 10 per cent were against it.
It was a spoof, of course, a bit of fun with a political leader whose party policies included a suggestion that a national referendum could be held with the signatures on a petition of 3 per cent of the total of voters from the 1997 election -- which works out to about 350,000. No one at Salter Street, not even Mr. Galipeau, vice-president of the company's new Webcasting division in Halifax, had any idea what would happen, and the reaction stunned them.
They expected about 30,000 people to answer the poll, but almost as soon as the show went off the air that Monday night, its new site, 22minutes.com, set up just for this poll, was hammered with 30 to 35 hits a second. By the end of the week, 2.5 million people had visited the site, making it the fastest-growing Web site in Canadian history, and nearly half of these visitors supported the Doris Day petition. The staff at Salter Street held their breath, but their servers never crashed under the load.
"It was the first time I've ever done anything on the Internet," Mr. Mercer said, "but it struck me that any idiot could get 3 per cent of the electorate. How to do it was the problem, he said. "I couldn't go to the local Wal-Mart and set a little table up with my petition."
What he did, six days before the actual broadcast, was call Sudhir Morar, Salter Street's 29-year-old top computer programmer, to see whether it was technically possible. Mr. Morar and his colleague Puneet Nagpal, who work out of the company's Toronto offices, talked to the firm that owns Salter Street's servers in Virginia, as well as to Sandeep Sawhney in New Delhi, a programmer who handles extra contract work for their projects. Mr. Morar and Mr. Nagpal handled the front end of the new site -- the part that people saw when they clicked on . Programmers at a Boston company loaded the images and Mr. Sawhney in India handled the e-mail capture form -- the place where people were asked if they wanted to hear more from 22 Minutes and from Salter Street Films and its partners. The vast majority said yes; only one person in 15 said no. And, just like the people who pulled the site together and made it work, they came from everywhere -- mostly Canada, but also from Europe, Asia and the United States.
"This thing rose virally," Mr. Galipeau explains. "And viral marketing is the golden goose of marketing on the Internet."
Viral marketing sounds a lot like the Love Bug e-mail virus that infected computers around the world several months ago, and in a way it is; viral marketing spreads rapidly through e-mails. The best examples are the sites for the dancing babies and hamsters that people have been passing around for years. And viral marketing is fast and inexpensive; it cost Salter Street only $10,000 to pull in those 2.5 million hits, and those hits arrived within the first five days after the site was set up.
"The key thing for me," Mr. Morar said, "is that this is a validation that the country is ready for convergence -- for television interacting directly with the Internet."
Salter Street president Catherine Tait, who works in the Halifax headquarters, agrees. "Convergence is going to happen," she says. Despite mutters from their investment bankers -- she says they told her 'You're a film company, stick to your knitting' -- the company sank capital into a new media division three years ago. Today it is a major part of the business. One example is Mr. Galipeau's baby, , a site that allows all investors, in the interests of full disclosure, to hear what senior executives are telling stock analysts about their companies during major briefing sessions.
If Ms. Tait needs to show her bankers any further proof that the makers of Emily of New Moon and 22 Minutes can be in the Internet business, she needs only to point to the huge list of people who let her company keep their e-mail addresses when they voted for Doris Day. Or to show them the same site now, which Mr. Morar has set up to comply with Mr. Mercer's latest exhortation to his viewers: send a message to Canada's peacekeeping troops overseas. Instead of an e-mail, however, viewers post to a bulletin board. The posts are coming in by the thousands. "We knew we had the reach with the television show," Ms. Tait says. "It was the level of commitment of the viewers that surprised us -- and the fact that they were all on the Net."
Now even Rick Mercer is a believer in convergence. "People ask me, 'How do you make money doing this?' and I say, 'I don't care.' I just want to keep doing this and I'm pretty proud of it."
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