Why the IBM Watson Jeopardy Challenge Is the Greatest B2B Campaign Ever

Nearly 10 million Americans tuned in to the venerable Jeopardy quiz show on February 14, forsaking their Valentine Day activities for a half-hour to watch a computer battle to a standoff with the two greatest Jeopardy champions of all time. Nearly as many tuned in the ensuing nights to see the IBM machine, called Watson, soundly thrash Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at the game they have dominated for the last decade.

Back at IBM, marketers were all smiles. What had started as an evolution on the 1997 contest between a computer named Deep Blue and world champion Garry Kasparov had become a cultural phenomenon, one that will be paying dividends for IBM for years to come. Thanks to a group of anonymous computer scientists, and a marketing organization that understood the power of their grassroots appeal, IBM had just pulled off the greatest B2B marketing coup of all time.

The Watson Jeopardy challenge wasn’t strictly a social media campaign, not by a long shot. IBM paid dearly for the chance to align itself with the Jeopardy brand and even footed the bill to create a television studio in its Yorktown, NY labs so that its computer could compete in climate-controlled environs. But many of the principles that IBM embraced in its grassroots promotion for the campaign represent the best of what social media has to offer.

Full disclosure: I’m a contractor to IBM on the project that is unrelated to the Watson Jeopardy challenge. I have no financial interest in the program’s success, but my role did permit me a bit of an insider’s view on the social activities that led up to the contest.

Beyond the Golf Course
Make no mistake about the fact that this was a B2B campaign. IBM has no consumer business, and its choice of Jeopardy was meant to find a crossover between mass-market and business constituents. Jeopardy was a gateway to selling computers to the Fortune 1000.

B2B companies have always struggled to find mainstream media channels to a business audience. Mostly they’ve settled for golf tournaments and news programs. The genius of the Jeopardy challenge is that the program combines highbrow content with mass appeal. It was also the perfect place to showcase state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technology in a context that makes sense to ordinary humans.

The 1997 chess match, in which an IBM computer beat the reigning world champion, received international coverage, but the game itself excited little interest in the US. In contrast, every American has watched Jeopardy and respects it for the mind-bending challenge it can be.

Scheduling the show during the frigid winter months following the Super Bowl was smart. Even smarter was that production schedules gave IBMers a month between the taping of the three-show series and their airing. While everyone who witnessed the taping was bound to draconian nondisclosure terms, there was nothing to stop the Watson marketers from putting the promotional wheels in motion, fully aware of the favorable outcome.

This is where the social component came in. IBM did relatively little mainstream media advertising for the event. Instead, it leveraged “owned” and “earned” channels at modest cost. A dedicated website featured background and video interviews with Watson’s creators, as well as an aggregation of social media buzz. The PBS program Nova was enlisted to air a documentary a week before the contest. IBM even cooperated with former BusinessWeek editor Stephen Baker on a book about the contest, with the final chapter set to be released immediately after the third program. IBM was able to piggyback not only on promotion for the book, but also on Baker’s popular writings on Huffington Post. A series of viewing parties and informal tweetups brought key customers into the fold.

Watson’s frequently updated Facebook page has more than 17,000 “likes” and its Twitter account has more than 6,000 followers as of this writing. On YouTube, IBM posted more than 30 short videos in the months leading up to the event, racking up more than 1 million views. It chose to feature the researchers and engineers who built the computer rather than the corporate suits.

Spotlight on the Little People
The company chose as its chief spokesman Dr. David Ferrucci, the attractive, articulate and disarmingly likable chief scientist on the project. Ferrucci’s ability to explain technology concepts in plain English without sounding arrogant was an asset to a project that was at constant risk of swamping its audience with technobabble. The final video in that series, which features the engineers speaking of the computer in the same way a parent speaks of a child, can almost move you to tears.

I can only imagine the restraint it took the suits at IBM not to hog the limelight, but letting Watson’s creators own the story. This lent an everyman tone to a project of incredible complexity.

About two weeks before the contest aired, IBM marketers began turning the conversation to business. It rolled out YouTube videos speculating on the technology’s applications to healthcare, customer service and finance. A week before the contest, press releases told of customers who were already lining up to apply the technology. As the media asked “What’s next?” In the wake of Watson’s victory, IBM had the answer ready.

IBMers were active in nooks and crannies of the Internet. The research team chose Reddit, a social news site with a small but enthusiastic membership, to answer the top 10 questions about Watson and the contest. Ferrucci and others used TED.com for a live webcast the day after the contest ended. They also live-blogged during the Nova program.

Finally, IBM tapped into its own social media resources, including more than 130 Twitter accounts and a hard core of IBM bloggers who have attracted their own followings over the years. There were no mandates from on high. IBM made it easy for its internal communicators to get the information they needed and its people blogged proudly and extensively about Watson in the weeks before the contest.

The Watson Jeopardy challenge was a huge financial bet for IBM, but the company will reap the rewards for years. Technology vendors compete fiercely for talent, and Jeopardy will keep IBM’s recruiting pipeline full of budding computer scientists. More importantly, the company’s B2B clients got a glimpse of technology in a context that sparked visions of possibilities in their own industries. Over the past week, IBM has been swamped with inquiries by corporations, universities and government agencies wanting to get their own taste of Watson.

Yes, it was a very good campaign.