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This week in viral: What color did you see #thedress?

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If you have watched the news or frequented any social media outlet since last Thursday, you might have seen or heard about #TheDress, a controversy that continues to baffle Planet Earth, pop culture enthusiasts, teenagers and even scientists.

The original story

A Scottish bride named Grace received a photo from her mother vetting dresses for her wedding. She told her mom that she liked the “white and gold” dress and her mother asked which one was she referring to, since there weren’t any white and gold dresses in the photos that she had sent. Grace then asked her husband-to-be what color was the dress and he replied black and blue. She thought they were playing a trick on her, so she asked her Facebook friends, people in her community and even “random people in bars.” No one could agree on the color of the dress! (Photo: Tumblr)

blue dress

From there, Caitlin McNeill, one of her friends, decided that the Internet would settle the matter, a very millennial thing to do — we take our questions, debates, curiosities and inquiries to social media. She posted a photo of the dress on Tumblr (a microblogging social network, mostly image-based)with a caption asking people to help her figure out the color. From then on, the debate raged and spread like wildfire across social media platforms and mass media in general. You can watch the whole story on the Ellen DeGeneres Show below.

The whole debate went down last Thursday night. I was online on Facebook and Twitter at about 10pm MST, when my feeds started spewing out hashtags like #teamblueandblack and #teamwhiteandgold. Other people were perplexed at the way the dress seemed to change colors depending on which monitor or device they viewed it on.

At first, I thought it was a prank by one of the social platforms’ geniuses to gauge users’ personality types or gather some other kind of intel. Then, I started to agree with how some people felt outrage that this irrelevant debate was an “issue,” instead of paying attention to things that mattered, like, say, net neutrality.

But, after many days reflecting on the debate, I began to wonder: What was it about “the dress” that made it go viral?

By all accounts, it was a strange stroke of luck that led to its virality. One that the company that made the dress, Roman Originals, must be thankful for, because they have since seen a 560 percent increase in global sales, according to The Boston Globe (and that figure has increased since last Thursday). Just so you know, the dress sells for $77, Roman Originals has more than a hundred stores in the United Kingdom and they deliver worldwide.

Today, the company’s dirty laundry has been aired out again, according to some news outlets. Back in 2007, the British newspaper The Observer investigated the retailer’s manufacturers in India and found that a subcontractor was using child labor. Roman Originals immediately issued a statement, which we found via MotherJones, saying that the now famous black and blue dress is made in China and that it is “in no way affiliated with the 2007 supplier highlighted in the story from 8 years ago,” said Ian Johnson, the company’s creative manager, to MotherJones.

And, as you may have guessed, countless of articles have popped up on the Web about the marketing takeaways from this debate.

Here are some lessons about virality:

1. If it’s positive, it’s great for sales, boosting brand awareness, attracting attention, new customers and creating tons of buzz.

2. With the increased attention, your dirty laundry will resurface too, even if it happened more than 10 years ago.

3. Make sure that your website infrastructure and digital response team can handle the high influx of web traffic, orders, questions and comments on official company social media pages. You want to take advantage of the attention and the last thing you want is a “404 Error, Page Not Found” or server crash of your company’s website.

4. Make sure that your public relations team is on high alert, monitoring what is being discussed online and on the media. It’s always good to be prepared, since the press is likely to flood all company communication channels. And make sure that your public relations team can coach or guide any press-facing person. You don’t want to appear to be a rookie, sweating in front of the TV cameras.

As to how to make something go viral, I can only posit a few un-tested ideas:

Curiosity and mystery make for passionate conversations: The way the picture was taken, the lighting, the monitor or device on which the beholder was looking at it, how our brains processes color, all conspired to make the dress appear different to different people. Our curious nature made this issue all the more interesting.

Competition: People started to question themselves and others. “Are they playing a trick on me?” “Are they just saying one color over the other to agree with the majority or do they really see it in those colors?” “Am I really seeing what I’m seeing or am I losing my mind or is there something wrong with me?” The belief that you’re right, as in, “No, you’re crazy if you see it a different color than I do” makes for a very passionate debate and people are more emotionally invested in it.

Entertainment: People always have time to be amused. Brain games and puzzles are fun. Brain games and puzzles that raise questions about perspective, reality and the way we see and do things are even more fun. I bet you would give anything to re-discover the world through a child’s curious eyes. And I agree with Forbes’ marketing lesson story, which says that the dress made us question our own existential reality and “provoked a new way of looking at why we talk about and share the things we do. Marketers continuously study this, hoping to define the perfect formula to make something go viral.” (We’re still working on that last one, Forbes.)

So, what color did you see? Comment below!

P.S. – I saw it black and blue since the beginning, but I could see the gold tones from the bad lighting.