Brent Coker

Digital and viral marketing expert

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Dr Brent Coker is a digital and viral marketing specialist, located in Melbourne Australia. He taught Digital Marketing and Viral Marketing subjects at Post Grad, MBA, and Executive Education levels at the University of Melbourne from 2008 (~present). His primary domain of research focusses on the psychology of marketing engagement and brand strategy.

He has authored many articles published in trade press outlets and top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Retailing and Marketing Magazine, and is author of the popular book ‘Going Viral’ (Pearson UK).

His research and opinions have been reported and published internationally, including the New York Times, The Guardian, Scientific American, and the Washington Post, to name a few. He has been a regular contributor in Australian Media, writing opinion pieces in The Herald Sun newspaper and writing a regular column in Australian Business Solutions Magazine.

He has consulted to blue chip organisations including Qantas, IBM, and Oticon, and has been an invited speaker at events around the world including Rocketspace, Mumbrella, and NerdNite.

Why I Research Viral Marketing

I woke up to my phone ringing. It was David.

“Brent! Where have you been!? Goddammit, I’ve been trying to get in contact with you—check your emails!”

Argh. I grabbed my notebook from the side table and flipped it open.

“I’m ah… Wait. What’s happened?” David was still jabbering, while I stared at my screen. I had a never-ending stream of new emails from people I had never heard of, and they were still loading. Some of them were reporters requesting an interview, others were office workers thanking me for my study, people with questions, and academics congratulating me.

I tuned back in to David “Your study is in the New York Times and it’s trending on Twitter!”

I crawled back under my covers in disbelief. This was gonna be a long day.

The University had put out a press release on my “Freedom to Surf” study, and it had gone viral. For the next few days my phone didn’t stop ringing. I gave radio station and media interviews from USA to Europe, and fielded what seemed like a never-ending barrage of emails. The press were reporting that a new study had found that surfing the internet at work was good for productivity. For some reason people couldn’t stop talking about it.

I had my 15 minutes of fame as they say. But what really intrigued me about what had happened was why my story had spread so wide and far, and so quickly.

And so begun my next research interest: why things go viral.

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Where I came from

I was born in a small village in New Zealand, into a working class family. I began my working career in the Southern Alps as a snow safety officer/ski patroller, rescuing injured people and blowing up snow to remove avalanche danger. The former I didn’t like so much, but throwing bombs to create avalanches was a blast!

Eventually I found found myself working as a ski instructor in Japan. The only English TV we had was CNN. It was the height of the dot-com era, and it seemed like every second story was about someone who had just made a few million dollars on the new ‘Internet’.  I wanted to be like them, so I borrowed some money to buy a computer and taught myself how to code. I built a dot-com called Fernland – an English school and homestay agency.

This was the beginning of my lifelong quest to understand the impact of digital connectedness on business and society!

Success is inversely proportional to failure. When you accept this, you’ll start to view disappointment in a different light

Fernland seemed like a good idea at the time, and if I knew then what I know now I probably could have made it work. But after 18 months of struggle, I pulled the plug. This was the first lesson I learnt when it comes to running a business online: Trust is the most important factor and pre-requisite for success. I had no idea how to build strong lasting relationships with customers. Like so many other businesses at the time, the costs of customer acquisition combined with insufficient efforts to build a strong brand presence sank the boat.

The dot-com bubble burst in March 2000. I remember the day clearly, because I had just enrolled into Victoria University in New Zealand to study how to make my next move into e-commerce a success. The Professor came into the room, and said: “How many of you regret enrolling into this course?” Half the class put their hand up. Seems unbelievable nowadays, but at the time many people still questioned whether online retailing was a passing fad.

No-one who is great at something was always great at it

I persevered. After completing a degree in e-commerce, I stayed for a year to do an honours research project. I discovered a fairly important finding at the time explaining how e-commerce could be best integrated into multi-channel retail models. To my surprise, it won best research paper at the Association of Information Systems Annual conference. On the back of that I ended up staying  for another three years to complete a PhD in online consumer psychology.

Doing a PhD is tough, especially trying to support my family at the same time. The mental strain I could deal with, but the financial strain began to take its toll. I needed a way to make money on the side, that would let me continue working on my PhD without being a too much of a distraction. So I started my second dot com – The idea was simple –people would sign-up to participate in market research, and in return I would let them earn points redeemable for cash. Meanwhile I was selling data collection services to market research agencies at a much cheaper price than they could get through their traditional channels. At the time the idea was still relatively new, and it was a success in keeping my family afloat while I finished my PhD.

When you look into someone else’s bowl, make sure it is to see if they have enough, not to compare what they have that you don’t

Soon after graduating with a PhD in online consumer psychology, I was offered a lecturing position at the University of Melbourne. When I was hired I found they didn’t teach Digital Marketing there, but it didn’t take me long to convince them that it was an important subject they should have on their portfolio. Today I still teach Digital Marketing there at Undergraduate, Postgraduate, and Executive Education levels. It’s such a privilege to be able to teach something I am so passionate about.

I have done several important things since becoming a consumer psychologist, including developing the Webreep Model –a set of algorithms that explains and predicts website satisfaction, the Branded Viral Movie Production (BVMP) algorithm that explains and predicts viral content, writing ‘Going Viral’. But what keeps me at University is my passion helping people, and my passion for discovering new knowledge.

I love to share my knowledge with others, and I’m fascinated by business success. Thank you for your interest in me.


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