On Saturday, #18 ranked Wisconsin defeated #1 Ohio State at Camp Randall. I’ve been to a ton of games at Camp Randall over the years, including a last second win against #14 Michigan and wins over other highly ranked opponents, but Saturday night was by far the loudest I’ve ever heard Camp Randall. But I don’t want to talk about what happened on the field, but rather what happened in the student section.
Whenever James White, Wisconsin’s freshman phenom running back, touched the ball, a huge percentage of the student section held up a blank 8.5×11 sheet of white paper. It looked like the university had gotten cheap because of the recession and handed out paper, instead of white towels, like they had when Ron Dayne broke the career rushing record against Iowa in 1999. In reality, the University had nothing to do with it.
How did 10,000+ students all get the idea to bring small pieces of computer paper into the stadium for the biggest game of the season? How did everyone know to do it? I was lucky enough to learn the whole story and will share it with you.
James White burst onto the scene in Wisconsin’s first three non conference games against UNLV, San Jose State and Arizona State. Although he did not have huge stats, you could see he had the makeup to be a special player. My friends Alex Connelly, Dylan Mathieu and Max Rosen wanted to create some sort of cheer for whenever James White did something good and came up with the idea to bring in blank pieces of white paper into the game. So for the Austin Peay game on September 25th, Alex and his friends snuck about 50 sheets of paper into the stadium and gave the paper out to the people sitting around them. Most of the people threw paper airplanes, mostly because the Badgers killed Austin Peay 70-3. White had 146 yards and 4 TDs and suddenly the entire student section knew who he was.
Two weeks later, the Badgers came home to battle rivals Minnesota. This time, they snuck an entire ream of paper into the game and passed the paper out to their friends. I remember looking for them from my seat in Section P and saw about 3 rows of people waving white paper in the bottom of Section N in the student section. It looked pretty cool, but it was not viral yet.
Wisconsin played Ohio State one week later and the events of that week are a great case study about how an idea goes viral. On Sunday, a student who had sat behind Al and his friends at the Minnesota game created a Facebook Event called James WHITE OUT. During the week, more students and alums joined the event and the buzz grew on Twitter, too. UW student Caleb Sherman was the earliest Twitter adopter I can find, tweeting to the UW Athletic Department, Chancellor and others UW organizations.
By Monday, it made it to the Badger Football Board on Buckyville with a three page thread called Students Planning James WHITE out. On Tuesday, it made it to the Scout.com Badger Message board with a thread called White Out. Other students and organizations joined in on Twitter all week.
By Tuesday, the Facebook event had over 6000 people attending had reached another 8,000 more and the Badger Herald wrote about the James White Out. On Wednesday and Thursday, ESPN’s nightly college football program mentioned the James White Out on the air and Sports Illustrated.com mentioned the White out.
On Friday, I called my brother, who excitedly said “did you hear, bring a piece of white paper to the game on Saturday?” I hadn’t heard anything else since I talked with Alex and his friends after the Minnesota game assumed they had been promoting somehow. I was wrong.
On Saturday morning, I biked over to my brother’s for a tailgate and he told me about the white out again. I told him my friends had started it, but he told me about the ESPN and Sports Illustrated mentions and the Facebook event, which now had over 7,500 attendees. Over 18,000 people had been invited and most of the UW student population knew about the White Out. I was concerned that the UW or Camp Randall would step in and not allow the White Out to happen, but I noticed that even the official UW twitter account was talking about the White Out and encouraging it.
I went over to my friends’ tailgate where I talked with Alex. He had a full ream of paper ready to go. I told him that my brother had seen the white paper idea on a Facebook event with 7500 confirmed attendees, mentions on Sports Illustrated and ESPN and that most of the student section would have white paper. He didn’t believe me. He thought I was messing with him. I kept telling him the story, but I don’t think he believed me fully until we got into the stadium. On James White’s first carry, a 70% of the student section held up white pieces of paper. It looked amazing.
The White out continued for the entire game, culminating in a huge celebration when James White ran for the game clinching touchdown midway through the 4th quarter. The party was on. When Blake Sorenson intercepted Tyrelle Pryor’s desperation pass to end the game, everyone ripped up their paper and created a confetti shower. It was an amazing site to see and showed how a small idea can grow exponentially with the help of the internet.
The James White Out is a perfect case study to demonstrate how a new idea, video or meme goes viral. You can use these ideas to help your ideas spread more quickly and you can also tweak your ideas to make them more sticky and therefore more viral. If you’re interested in how this works, check out Derek Sivers’ awesome blog post about how to start a movement. Many of the same principals apply here, too. Here’s a quick summary of how The James White Out went viral at the University of Wisconsin:
1. Come up with sticky, innovative idea
Alex, Dylan and Max come up with idea to bring blank white sheets of paper to show support for James White.
2. Early adopters become evangelizers and spread the new idea
Student sitting behind Alex, Dylan and Max at Minnesota game started Facebook event and invited all of his friends. Other students tweet to UW, Athletic Department, Chancellor and others to support the idea. Guys with original idea have no control over this spread, and in fact, did not know it was happening. You need to have such a sticky idea, that others want to share it. It should be funny, easy to do, innovative or just downright interesting.
3. Niche Community Adopt idea
As Facebook event grows, niche Badger sports communities like Buckyville and Scout.com spread the message. After the original idea, you don’t know where your ideas will go, but if they are not hitting the niche communities who you are trying to attract, you can always try to seed these communities.
4. National Influencers adopt idea
ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other national influencers share the message, reaching millions of people. If you haven’t had any success with steps 1-3, you really can’t go right to step 4, unless you are a really big company. Even then it will likely backfire.
10,000+ students bring white paper to student section and hold it up when James White gets a carry. The guys with the original idea still have no idea that their idea has gone viral. They think it is a joke when I tell them on Saturday, about 2 hours before kickoff. It shows that when you have a great idea, it will spread if you make it easy enough for others to jump in.
6. Mainstream adoption
News articles, tweets, and other mentions from people who were watching on TV or heard about the White Out, but did not attend the game.