Air New Zealand pretty much views the Lord of the Rings movies as a gift from the gods.
Normally the airline's US marketing department has to compete with the likes of Qantas for those long-vacation discretionary dollar spenders. And let's just say Qantas has deeper pockets.
"One ad sales rep got put in the middle of the two of us, fighting over placement," remembers Dina Louie, Air New Zealand USA Internet Manager. Louie has to watch every penny, so Quantas won.
But Air New Zealand was able to make the most of what US media they could afford in print and online by featuring Lord of the Rings-related creative with the headline, "The movie is fictional. The location isn't. Middle Earth is New Zealand." (Link to samples below.)
Running during vacation-shopping months since November 2002 on carefully tested national sites, the online ads had a remarkably high .86% conversion rate -- that's the percent of clicks who anted up for a plane ticket costing just under $1000.
Louie delightedly planned her 2004 online campaigns to be more of the same. Then early on Monday January 26th, she was pulled into an emergency marketing meeting. The airline was taking over United's old slot in San Francisco International Airport, and HQ thought it would be a great idea to get the word out with a special 14-day ticket sale for the SF area.
Could Louie please whip up a quick online marketing campaign focusing on SF ... to launch the next Monday? Also, could she make sure it was very high-impact so the first flights out of SF would be sell-outs after just two weeks of online promotion?
Last but not least, she couldn't use the proven Middle Earth creative because it didn't have a time-dated call to action, or a SF regional focus. CAMPAIGN
First Louie got on the phone with all of her media reps -- could they switch some of her planned inventory buys to early February; could they do geotargeting for SF; and, exactly which ad units were available on that basis??
"We were scrambling," she says. "We made the buys in probably a day and a half."
She deliberately chose to go with geotargeting on national sites rather than focusing heavily on locals because she'd already tested the nationals and knew exactly how well their audience worked for her. She needed a sure thing for this campaign.
Plus, she's suspicious of relying on non-tested local sites. "I worked in radio before I came here. I knew what the radio account people said about sites. It was always based on ratings ... it was hard to trust. It's hard to say how well they market the site."
That said, she knew she absolutely had to run on SFGate, the site for San Francisco's largest newspaper. She couldn't afford a direct buy, and there was very little time, so she went with an online ad network (an aggregator selling remaindered space) who guaranteed that SFGate would be one of the sites they placed her on.
Once Louie had a list of ad units, she handed them to the creative team to get some banners made. She didn't have extra funds for creative, so she asked them to give it their best shot, creating just two ads per unit -- one a revolving gif and one rich media Flash-version. (Link to samples below.)
Unlike the Middle Earth campaign, these ads were extremely down 'n' dirty. There were no gorgeous photos, no fancy design, and very little copy -- just a price, a deadline, and a click button.
Louie flung up a landing page to match, and also altered the US site's home page so the offer rode front and center in the hero-spot for that two week period. This, she hoped, would convert any view-throughs who saw the ads but didn't click directly.
Lastly, she zapped out an eblast featuring matching direct response creative to her house list.
"Sales were our best ever that month," says Louie. "We almost doubled online sales. We were blown away -- this was a blast!" However she notes that the San Francisco campaign probably would not have been as successful if it hadn't fallen into ground already fertilized by the long-term Middle Earth campaign, which does an outstanding job of branding New Zealand as a destination.
On average the San Francisco online ads got a .07% click rate and a .8% conversion. Ads placed in boxes in center of a site's content tended to perform better than those on the edges. (That CNET Box format keeps on ticking....)
Louie notes that while lower-cost ad network buy performed "about the same" as direct buys, "It gave me a bitter taste in my mouth because we lacked control. It's not to say it wasn't effective, we did make sales. But, the reporting's all coded so you don't know which sites are doing what." (Which, from the point of view of the aggregator, makes perfect sense. Why should they want you to go direct?)
Also, the rich media ads didn't always perform better than the standard revolving gifs.
Why? Louie says she's learned a lesson about rich media, "Sometimes the standard gif pulled better because you can't do as much animation. The message was more static. If rich media's in a content ad, it may load and start to play but people won't see it until they get to the part where the ad is. They miss the beginning, and the message didn't necessarily make sense if you didn't see it from the beginning.
"So, rich media isn't necessarily better, it's all down to how you manage your creative."
MarketingSherpa's heard from other online advertisers with the same problem. One suggestion we've heard is to time your rich media to start a couple of seconds after the page load begins. The site often allows you only a 10-second run time, so your ad will just run eight seconds. But eight seconds of high-impact is better than 10-seconds of confusion.
Also, perhaps very direct response-oriented ads work better sometimes with less fancy creative. You're cutting to the chase with your offer. No distractions....Useful links related to this article:
Samples of Middle Earth and SF campaigns:
Plexus M/2 Inc - the US-based agency who did the SF campaign creative quickly and on a tight budget:
Colenso BBDO, the New Zealand-based agency who did the Middle Earth online ads
Air New Zealand US