Going Viral: Alex From Target, A Year Later and 3,900,000 (Followers) Richer
Andy Warhol said that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” That future is now: with social media, everyone can be famous for 15 minutes, but some stretch their time in the spotlight into days, months, and years. How do they do it?
Last November, when teen Twitter set its eyes on Target cashier Alex Lee, the attention could have flickered out almost immediately. Now, with more than 3.9 million followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram combined, Alex has stretched his 15 minutes into a very big year. How did Alex from Target go viral? And how did he turn his 15 minutes into a lucrative, long-lasting, and massive following? We used Crowdbabble’s social media analytics tools to find out.
Teenage Girls Run The Internet
Alex was an unlikely viral sensation — or might have been considered an unlikely subject for fame before social media. The teenager, whom Gawker described as a “babyfaced angel”, joined Twitter in September 2014. He used the platform to joke with his friends, complain about his parents, and mostly retweet anything “fleek.”
Crowdbabble’s engagement analysis tells us that before he went viral, Alex tweeted around twice per day and receiving two to three favourites, retweets, or replies per tweet. Then, on November 2, a teen snapped a picture of Alex working at a Target checkout counter in Texas and uploaded it to Twitter (caption: “YOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”).
On Twitter, thousands of tweets about the unassuming cashier flooded @AlexLeeWorld (then @ac163). It was the Twitter equivalent of thousands of preteens and young women screaming for their favourite singer at a concert — no tickets required.
As the viral sensation unfolded online, teens gleefully mashed up images of Alex with other phenomena to create new memes: #alexfromtarget + The Fault In Our Stars spawned new viral tweets, including “i fell in love with the way he bagged my groceries slowly then all at once #alexfromtarget.” Alex Lee was the prom king of Twitter.
When #alexfromtarget became a trending topic, news outlets picked up the story and @alexleeworld gained 300,000 new followers overnight. Like student photojournalist Tim Tai, Alex’s virality touched the zeitgeist. Alex from Target became a public figure news outlets could use to discuss Internet fame and teen social media habits.
When you become an overnight sensation, you’re going to get some hop-ons.
Brands eager to capitalize on young, authentic, grassroots phenomena jumped on the trending topic. Target’s tweet tagged with #AlexFromTarget was retweeted more than 45,000 times. Alex Lee’s long-time girlfriend @lindseydiers_ experienced a sharp uptick in followers after #alexfromtarget went viral — and threats from teens angry that their idol was taken. They’re still together, and Lindsey now has 20,050 followers.
The hop-ons only fuelled Alex’s rise.
The day after Alex went viral Ellen reached out to him on Twitter, sharing the hashtag with her 2 million+ followers.
Alex, the social media viral hit, and Ellen, an old media juggernaut, fuelled each other’s engagement, creating a spike for both of them. When Alex went on Ellen on November 6, viewership on the show’s YouTube channel soared; Alex’s clip attracted more than 6.2 million views. In turn, Alex rounded out his viral week with 733,000 followers.
During his appearance, Ellen asked him: “Can you sing? Do you have any other talents? We need to capitalize on this!” Alex replied: “I mean, I can apparently bag groceries pretty well.” With the power of social media, now combined with broadcast attention (Ellen, CNBC, KISSFM and other appearances), Alex didn’t need a special talent to stay famous. But he did need to do something. “You should take advantage of this,” Ellen said. “Yeah,” Alex replied.
Finding The Right Platforms
The day after he appeared on Ellen, Alex joined Instagram with a photo of the two together. His first post on Instagram garnered 129,000 likes — growth on the platform, with frequent photos of Alex in close up shared, has been in a steady decline. Note the downward trend via Crowdbabble’s engagement visualization:
In that first month on Instagram, Alex averaged 2,605 comments per post and harnessed 3,432,311 total engagements.
Alex’s most popular uploads? “Candid” shots in which he looks like a regular teenager, rather than the professionally styled photos he often shares.
The infrequent candid photos aren’t enough. In November 2015, @alexleeworld averaged 486 comments per post and attracted only 234,305 engagements — less than 10% of engagement from the same period last year. Moreover, last month he lost more than 2,000 followers. Surprisingly, a teenager whose face made him famous is not succeeding on a visually-based social platform.
Alex’s written content on Facebook is much more successful. Alex only began posting to Facebook regularly in the last week of November 2015 (as shown in Crowdbabble’s analysis below), a full year after #alexfromtarget went viral. Even now, engagement is staggering: with 1.3 million likes, Alex Lee averages 46,844 likes, comments, and shares per post.
Alex now alternates between sharing grassroots viral posts (#squadgoals, #fleek, etc) created by young users on social media, and clickbait from AllDay.com. The grassroots content usually attracts between 30,000 and 80,000 likes, while AllDay receives just 100 to 200.
Twitter, the platform where he went viral, has been by far Alex’s most consistently successful engagement tool. Over the past four months on Twitter, Alex has received an average of 3,079 engagements per text-based tweet with an impressive 116.4% engagement rate — that means his content is engaged with multiple times by his followers and others. Alex’s average engagement on Twitter is now 1,500 times what it was before he went viral.
Using Crowdbabble’s follower tool, we can see that growth on Twitter is stable.
Alex now sits at 809,207 followers, an increase of roughly 75,000 from the initial 733,000 he gained almost overnight in 2014.
Authenticity On Point
Alex Lee now has a management company, Influential Management, and has been paid for at least a dozen product shout-out through his social channels. Does this turn off his followers?
It doesn’t. As with Tim Tai, Alex Lee’s Internet fame was instant, accidental, and totally out of his control. Like Tim, Alex maintained his voice on social media, and the authenticity has only attracted more followers (unlike Tim, Alex has heavily leveraged this new following for paid endorsement deals).
In between messages with his face pressed up against a new product — from oil pulling treatments to detox tea — Alex uses social to rant about Mondays, send inspirational messages, and complain about parents.
Though it was Alex’s face that made him go viral, it seems that his stream-of-consciousness writing is more compelling to his young followers than Instagram pictures of him. Case in point: this week, Alex changed his look radically by dying his hair green ahead of #SlayBells, a speaking tour for viral sensations. As we learned using Crowdbabble’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter analytics tools, this hasn’t affected his follower growth on any platform.
Alex’s growth patterns on social media disrupt assumptions about how to succeed as a viral sensation. What made Alex famous (photos of him) is not what’s keeping him famous (posts written by him): his Instagram account is failing, but on Facebook and Twitter, Alex from Target is gaining steam.
For a viral sensation like Alex, listening to what followers want and keeping his voice is key to growing his high school fan base. To his followers — at least on social media — Alex from Target is still just a regular teen, albeit the coolest one in school.