Michael Selvidge only started his job in Twilio's communications department three weeks ago, but he's already scored his first viral marketing hit -- practically by accident and all thanks to one retweet from New York Times tech reporter Jenna Wortham. In case you missed it, the Callin' Oates meme is just a phone number (719-26-OATES) and an answering machine ("Welcome to Callin' Oates: Your Emergency Hall and Oates Hotline") that prompts you to press a number to hear a song by the dreamy duo Hall and Oates ("To hear 'Private Eyes' press 4"). We spoke to Selvidge on Tuesday afternoon, less than 12 hours after the phone number went live; he told us that about 58,000 people had called the number in the 8 hours since Wortham retweeted to her 428,000+ followers the phone number he'd mentioned in a tweet from the custom-built @CallinOates Twitter account. And that number is rising fast. In the 20 minutes between our first interview with Selvidge and a follow-up, another 5,000 people had called the hotline.
We know what you're thinking: Selvidge is either a meme genius or a very very lucky communications manager. And the truth is: it's a little bit of both. "It sort of was and it wasn't [a marketing campaign]," Selvidge told The Atlantic Wire. "It wasn't planned." Selvidge went on to explain a challenge that every new employee faces at Twilio, a San Francisco-based startup that offers a paid service for developers to gain access to a robust API enabling a program to receive and place phone calls as well as handle text messages. Essentially, whether you're a developer or a PR-type like Selvidge, one of your first tasks at Twilio is to build an app using the API and present it to the company. If it works, you win a red track jacket and respect or whatever. We asked Selvidge if it was like an initiation project and he said, "That's a pretty good word for it."
Callin' Oates was Selvidge's (so far very successful) initiation project. Over the weekend, Selvidge and his high school friend Reid Butler spent about two hours building a handful of apps using the Twilio manual and their piecemeal php coding skills. After testing it with family and friends, Selvidge sent the phone number to a few people on Twitter, one of who was Jenna Wortham (a.k.a. @jennydeluxe, the Times technology journalist with nearly half a million followers.) The exchange looks like this:
That's the retweet that birthed the meme, Selvidge says. Again, lots of other people tweeted and retweeted the phone number, but from Selvidge's look at the analytics from calls to Twilio's API, Wortham's tweet appears to be the one that really set the meme on fire. An hour later, he said thanks:
We have to point out that Michael Selvidge is not being ironic with his choice of Hall and Oates as the band behind the hotline. He's really a diehard fan. "I'm not trying to make fun of Hall and Oates," he said emphatically in a phone interview. "I do sort of recognize the cheesy factor but I actually do appreciate their music and I do actually listen to it and they are one one of my favorite bands. It's definitely an affectionate thing." And about that business plan tweet, Selvidge was kidding. In fact, he told The Atlantic Wire that he spent his own money to keep the service live. When asked how much, he replied, "I'd rather not say -- I'm a little bit embarrassed."
Selvidge's presentation to the rest of Twilio is on Wednesday night. We all know that his app works and given the fact that it's is on track to score hundreds of thousands, if not millions of hits, we're pretty sure Michael's going to get that jacket.