Ben Huh, the CEO of Cheezburger, shares the behind the scenes story and the results of our recent I Can Has Uber Kittens event:
Noon, October 29th, National Cat Day:
The idea started out simple: “push button, receive kitten.” But now, it was almost out of control. On the laptop screen, we were staring at tiny little icons of eyeballs, covering the entire map of Manhattan. From Battery Park to Harlem, it was eyeballs to eyeballs, denoting the number and location of people who were opening the Uber app.
This stunt was the best real-world viral marketing project launched by Cheezburger. Our goal was to raise awareness and money for kitten adoption. But like all good ideas, the path to launch day was hardly smooth. This path involves scope creep, live baby animals, trans-continental coordination, overnight cupcake repair, and cold feet.
Let me share how we orchestrated this amazing day, 7 months in the making.
The idea was hatched at SXSW when Emily, my wife and the Director of Biz Dev at Cheezburger brought the idea to the community manager of Uber Seattle. The initial idea was to have a handful of Uber cars with kittens who would accompany you on your ride (with a shelter representative, of course).
Emily pushed for the idea again in May and that’s when real discussions about the event started happening. If an idea stalls, sometimes you have to keep trying if you really believe in it.
Uber Seattle was on board, with SF and NY expressing interest. Uber would provide the technology, cars, and would assist with organizing on the ground support in each of the three cities. Cheezburger would handle the rest — everything leading up to launch day, bringing on shelters, logistics for ensuring the cats were handled safely and humanely, coordinating press materials and strategy, and creating custom cupcakes for everyone. Yes. Cupcakes.
The only manpower available for this project on Cheezburger’s side were Emily and our publicist, Jackie. To be honest, if I had learned about this, I would have told you there was no way a 2-person team could pull all this off. Cheezburger’s team faced an incredible level of complexity, starting with the safety of the kittens, coordinating logistics and being the communication hub across all parties involved. It was months of a balancing act.
The shelters raised some concerns about having the kittens riding in the cars with riders. It was time for a quick pivot. Emily, Jackie and the Uber Seattle community manager brainstormed and found research indicating that watching cute cat videos boosts productivity. The idea got a tweak that could bring the shelters on board. We would be delivering kittens to offices for a flat fee that would be donated to the participating shelters. That way the kittens could be safely transported in crates and play in an enclosed kitten pen in the office.
While the concept of kitten-to-office delivery still met the original goal of “push button, receive kitten”, Emily and Jackie felt that they had to sweeten the offer. So they added cupcakes to every delivery as a thank you for the donations. But these wouldn’t be just any ordinary cupcakes. Jackie was able to get Duff Goldman, star of Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes”, on board. Goldman along with his team at Charm City Cakes to design custom cupcakes with cheeseburger toppers.
End of August
The project scope had crept up to real-time baby animals and fresh food delivery in three cities simultaneously. K-Day was set for Tuesday, October 29th, National Cat Day.
Emily focused her energy on securing all participating shelters. It wasn’t as easy as asking and getting an answer, as shelters are non-profits run by a volunteer board of directors. By September 6th, all 3 cities had shelters lined up. We had additional interest from Uber’s DC, Boston, Chicago, and Phoenix offices, but given that this was our first year, the complexity of coordinating the event and a limited staff, we decided to keep it focused. We chose Seattle because that’s where Cheezburger HQ is, San Francisco because Uber is headquartered there and because New York because well, it’s New York.
September 25th, 5 weeks from K-Day.
An operational group is formed between Uber Seattle, SF, NY and Cheezburger HQ to hold regular Google Hangouts.
If you think things are going well, it’s time to check on the foundations. Emails from shelters started raising more concerns. They were considering dropping out. In September, kitten season (yes, there is such a thing) was coming to a pass, and there were less kittens coming into the shelters than expected. Emily worked with the shelters to have as many kittens as possible to participate and made the kittens’ health and safety a top priority throughout the process. The kittens were our VIPs.
The 11-point process Cheezburger, Uber and the shelters worked out looked like this:
The kittens would be screened by each shelter to make sure they were in excellent health, free of disease, and freshly groomed. In fact, two sets of 2 kittens were specially reserved by the ASPCA in NY for press interviews. (There are kittens and then there are kittens ready for prime-time. Apparently.)
Kittens would be transported by safety crate from shelter to an Uber SUV by a minimum of two staffers trained in the process.
A shelter volunteer or employee, and an Uber community manager and/or a Cheezburger employee would accompany the kittens at all times. This was the Go-Team.
The crate would hold no more than 3 adorable and cuddly kittens.
The kittens would remain in the crate until they reached each office that requested them.
The SUV would start the day at 11 am local time and go until 4pm.
When the kittens arrived at each office, the Go-Team would find an enclosed area or conference room and screen for any dangers — such as, loud noises, small holes that could trap kittens, open windows, other pets, moving equipment, etc.
In cases where there was no enclosed area, there was a backup playpen available to create a safe environment.
After 15 minutes of being cuddled and loved, they would set off to the next office.
If anyone on the Go-Team believed that the kittens were too tired or were acting unusually, they would be returned to the shelter immediately. At the ASPCA, they would be inspected by a veterinarian. Even if the veterinarian gave a clean bill of health, the kittens would stay at the shelter.
If the shelter had other healthy and happy kittens available, the car could go out with another set.
Cheezburger and Uber Seattle do a test run of kitten delivery with the Seattle Humane Society. There’s no better way to learn than actually trying it. In addition, Cheezburger produces a video to promote the campaign and kitten adoption.
With less than a week remaining, Cheezburger confirms schedules, number of kittens, volunteer rosters, processes, and initiates selective press outreach.
Evening of October 28th. Just hours before K-Day.
I walk into my hotel room at 6 pm to find Jackie and Emily looking distraught.
“What’s the problem?” I ask.
Jackie is on the phone. It’s serious. Emily shushes me. I can kinda follow the conversation.
“Is there anyone who can fix this tonight?” Jackie asks. “I also don’t know about the other cities. Are you sure they are OK?”
At this point, I am afraid to ask. It’s been almost 6 months of work, and now, there was clearly a huge mess at the 11th hour.
“The chocolate frosting is fine, but the vanilla…” Jackie continues.
We had a cupcake emergency. There was structural issue with some of the cupcakes that were traveling from Baltimore to NY. We learned that chocolate frosting has a thicker consistency, which adds structural integrity to support the adorable “Cheezburger” cupcake toppers. Unfortunately, vanilla frosting is delicious but not as supportive depending on the humidity level. Duff’s team at Charm City Cakes responded quickly and was able to come up with a solution with just hours to go to ensure that all three cities had perfect cupcakes for the day of our event.
“Wait, it’s just the cupcake frosting?” I ask, incredulously. Emily and Jackie give me that look that makes it clear that says I’m about to face their wrath. “We need to make sure this is fixed.” I take on a more serious tone and retreat to my laptop.
9 am Eastern Time, October 29th, National Cat Day (AKA K-Day)
I’m waiting patiently on set of Wall Street Journal Live on 6th Avenue. The kittens are late. Very late. The live segment has a 30-minute window and we have no idea where they are. They were supposed to be here at the same time as us. I could see the stress mounting in everyone on set. If we missed the remaining 6-minute window, our very first press event would be a bust. And we had now idea how many interviews we could line up for the day. I was getting stressed out. Emily and Jackie were texting, calling, and emailing Uber and the ASPCA, but we had no idea where they were. I began to sweat.
With just 3-minutes to spare, the crew burst through the doors. They uncrate the kittens and went right to the live interview. The host was actually petting the kittens with his chin, the kittens were playfully trying to bat the microphone (of course). Within seconds, the stress of traffic and uncertainty disappears at the presence of these two adorable white kittens.
WIth the interview in the bag, there’s a clear sense that this was going to be a success and the phone is literally ringing non-stop. The Internet is going wild.
I receive a call from a friend: “I think Cheezburger just won the Internet. We can all go home now.”
One day, I’ll share with you my tips on how to handle an excited kitten on a live interview while I’m doped up on antihistamines (if you didn’t know, I’m allergic to cats. #bombshell). But that’s another post.
288 cupcakes delivered
Demand: 1,044 kittens per hour
9 of the participating kittens adopted
$14,268 raised for shelters
Coverage by 75 press outlets
3,070 tweets using the hashtag #icanhasuberkittens
352 posts on Instagram using the tag #icanhasuberkittens
Note on the graph above (Tweet Distribution by US Metro Area): % of Population is the % of US population in that metro area. This basically tells us how well the campaign did in covering each location. NY, SF, and Seattle were expected to do well, but it was a surprise to see so much activity from Chicago, San Jose, Denver, and Key West.