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Is Kijiji-celebrity Weh-Ming Cho looking to farm out his online ad writing skills? “I’ve had offers,” he says, but for now he is sticking with his job as a financial analyst. (The Globe and Mail)
Is Kijiji-celebrity Weh-Ming Cho looking to farm out his online ad writing skills? “I’ve had offers,” he says, but for now he is sticking with his job as a financial analyst. (The Globe and Mail)

Snowblower sensation a case study in making a classified go viral Add to ...

Alec Bruce’s new snow blower is the stuff of Internet legend. An ad selling a “machine of snow doom” caught the New Brunswick journalist’s attention on Kijiji, the free classified site, and now he can look forward to cutting “a 29-inch path of pure ecstasy” through some serious snow drifts.

It wasn’t the eight speeds, halogen light or the body that seller Weh-Ming Cho described as “greasier than me when I was 13” that persuaded Mr. Bruce to spend $900: It was Mr. Cho’s writerly chops. The ad suggested that instead of murdering your snow-blower-owning neighbour (you know, that guy who probably has a drinking problem) in a jealous rage and getting out of shovelling for 25 years to life, you buy one of your own.

“It was just too funny,” Mr. Bruce said. “I thought, I’d rather buy from this guy than a faceless retail outlet.”

Mr. Cho got more than 1,300 responses.

Kijiji and other free classified sites can sometimes be the land of bland. Ads are filled with exclamation marks, or there is a begging tone, or the spelling is so off-the-charts bad that you’re not really sure what’s on offer. But most people are just looking for stuff. So if a seller goes to some effort to entertain, it gets noticed.

The 900 words of endorsement, penned by Mr. Cho, was viewed 407,000 times and made the rounds of social and mainstream media, turning the seller and his “fearsome warrior” into celebrities.

Among the usual 20-word sales pitches, ads like Mr. Cho’s don’t just grab a buyer’s attention, they throttle it. “The world appreciates good stories,” says Kelly Toughill, director of the school of journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax, pointing to sites like Groupon, whose underdog success stems from good, funny copy. She should know – her brother makes his living selling products on eBay.

One Halifax-based site that makes a fetish of pointing out the good and bad of Kijiji posted a Quebec ad that made it into its Hall of Fame. “This sofa is very manly (ugly). A girl would stop at that. She will not read my ad and then she’ll buy a ‘sectional’ with an ottoman for $1,200! You, you’re a guy. You’ll just think about buying a slipcover to put on the manly (ugly) couch and save the $1,200. A guy’s going to change the cover every time one of his friends is over to watch the game and spills salsa on it. You will still have money left to pay for the beer.”

The post for the sofa – a floral monstrosity that had seen better days – is currently the top-read ad in the site’s history, with 532,000 views in three weeks.

Stories like this and Mr. Cho’s are also top fodder for Kijiji’s popular user forum and blogs.

When consumers are inundated with thousands of marketing messages a day, “humour is a great way to break though,” says Dan Shaw, a professor of marketing at Dalhousie University.

Mr. Cho’s copy was so effective, he had a snow-blower dealership offer to buy his product and use it as a marketing tool, along with the line: “If you thought the Internet snow blower was awesome, wait ’til you get a load of this!”

A well-written ad takes on a life of its own. One particular Jeep ad resurfaces every few months: Users repeat the copy to sell their own vehicles. The first time around, the ad received 400,000 views. The most recent copycat got 150,000. Fans are fast to identify them as recycled material, though, since the watered-down versions don’t have the coup de grace of the original: The Jeep’s owner threw in a pair of MC Hammer pants.

Professor Shaw points out that, post-recession, services like Kijiji are a better place than ever to reach potential buyers. But if users want to move a product, they need to work keywords into their copy too.

Jeff Quipp, a search engine optimization expert with Internet marketing company Search Engine People based in Ajax, Ont., explains that viral popularity won’t bolster an ad’s search potential as much as using good, descriptive keywords in the header and body copy.

(Search engines are moving toward incorporating social cues from sites such as Twitter into their ranking systems, but for now, repeated keywords and good pictures are important.)

Popular ads weed out hagglers and drive up prices by creating a sense of demand. Toronto-based Bart Molenda, Kijiji’s head of marketing, recently sold a vintage motorcycle with an ad emphasizing what made the bike unique by linking to online reviews. About 7,000 hits later, he sold it for $1,000 more than he originally paid. The buyer was willing to pay more because Mr. Molenda’s ad convinced him there would be stiff competition.

The common denominator is simplicity, Mr. Molenda says. The fewer questions people have to ask after reading an ad, the more likely they are to buy.

Ultimately, Mr. Bruce bought his snow blower from Mr. Cho because he felt a sense of kinship. “It’s all about supporting good writing,” he says. And Mr. Cho chose his buyer based on the quality of Bruce’s e-mails, despite offers from out-of-towners of up to $2,900.

Is Mr. Cho looking to farm out his skills? “I’ve had offers,” he says, but for now he is sticking with his job as a financial analyst.

Mr. Cho, whose first Kijiji ad anthropomorphized patio stones he and his wife were trying to give away, is enjoying his new-found celebrity. He is getting recognized at the grocery store, he has partnered with Loogaroo.com to develop an animated series and he is taking writerly feedback on his blog, blognostifier.com. He was writing a science-fiction novel for a month-long writing challenge, but now he is sticking with what people seem to love most about his work: the funny stuff.

He is also trying to get back to every person who contacted him about the snow blower, but e-mails are still pouring in. “Being Internet-famous is exhausting,” he laughs.

And the snow machine of doom? It’s languishing on Mr. Bruce’s back 40, waiting for the next big storm of the season.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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