Jeremy Doak, Director, Marketing, Accor Services, typically promoted his company’s commuter benefits administration services to HR reps and business owners. He and his team explained to prospects how to take advantage of federal tax breaks for commuters.
But in the process, they realized that employees weren’t asking employers about the benefits. If they wanted to get more traction with companies, they had to first get consumers to realize that government-based commuter benefits programs existed.
"We wanted to have a bottom-up approach where employees would learn about the benefit," says Doak. "Our biggest point for them was awareness."
The team needed a strategy that would capture consumer attention and create demand for the commuter benefits programs, but one that also turned consumer traffic into business leads. CAMPAIGN
Doak’s team built a multichannel campaign dubbed "Commuter Nation," which reached consumers through several tactics, including:
o Street teams
o A contest
o A viral website
o Social media integration
The program was designed to get consumers to tell employers about Accor and its benefits administration services.
Here are the six steps they followed to create and manage the campaign:Step #1. Pitch the plan to executives
The team’s strategy required substantial investment, which called for buy-in from Accor’s executives.
The "bottom-up" approach was new to some executives. Doak had to carefully pitch viral marketing ideas, which was a new concept to some of his bosses.
"It wasn’t foreign, but it was completely untested and had never been tried before by anyone in any of our [offices]," says Doak.
Doak’s team provided assurance by outlining a series of steps for the campaign, and describing how it would help them reach their 2009 goal of 1,750 leads for the year. Step #2. Work with transit partners
Doak’s team had dozens of transit agency partners from whom they bought commuter passes for companies enrolled in their benefit plans. These partners maintained major transit stations, such as Penn Station in New York City.
Doak’s team asked partners’ marketing departments to collaborate on a campaign to promote commuter benefits. The selling point for partners: Promoting commuter benefits would help increase the agencies’ ridership.
The team asked for:
o Access to transit terminals where street teams could approach commuters
o Advertising placement in stations and on vehicles
All but one agency granted the team access to their stations for the campaign. In some cases the team paid a fee, though deeply discounted, Doak says. And the team even secured free advertising in some partners’ stations and vehicles.Step #3. Build and train street teams
The plan called for using street teams of eight to ten people to conduct 20 events, during which they handed out commuter benefits information.
o 8 events in New York City
o 6 events in San Francisco
o 6 events in Washington, D.C.
- Hone the messaging
Commuters are notoriously hard to approach, and very few had time to stop and chat. Doak’s team coached the street teams to deliver a five-second pitch. Key message:
o The ability to save up to 40% on commuting costs
o Suggestion to visit program website
They also created a 3x4-inch flyer that mentioned the 40% savings and listed the program’s URL. The street teams also wore shirts that emphasized their messaging (see creative samples below).
- Know the details
Street team members had to be knowledgeable about program details in case they were quizzed by passersby. The team drafted a summary of typical questions people might ask and key messages to emphasize. They also held conference calls and training sessions where the street teams practiced approaching people and answering questions about the program.Step #4. Build a viral website
The team created a website to receive traffic for the campaign. Their business-oriented sites were too technical and detail-oriented for a consumer audience.
By contrast, the new site took a lighter tone to explain how commuter benefits:
o Cut commuting costs
o Helped the environment
o Improved personal wellness
- From the homepage, visitors selected one of the three cities by clicking quirky names such as "Benefrisco" and "New Perk City."
- They then arrived at a page where they could:
o Select one of three virtual tour guides to explain the website and benefits
o Send a link to friends via email, Facebook or Twitter
o Send a link to an employer via email
o Find out more about their preferred commuting method
- When forwarding a site link to visitors and employers, visitors could upload an image of their face to be used as one of the digital tour guides. The team felt that this feature would help viral pass-along.
- The team used coded URLs in many of their marketing materials to monitor traffic they drove to the site by source.Step #5. Add a contest as an incentive
Initially, the team thought that the potential to save 40% on commuting costs would be enough to entice consumers to visit their website -- but it didn’t turn out that way.
"After the first couple events, we weren’t getting the reach we wanted," says Doak. "We weren’t getting enough people to the site, and we weren’t getting enough people to take action."
So they crafted a sweepstakes to give away free commuting passes:
o Three grand prize winners would win a free year of commuting
o They also awarded lesser prizes of two and six months of free commuting
o They selected nine winners, three in each market per week
- Encourage forwarding to employers
Commuters could enter the contest by visiting the website and filling out a form with personal information. They placed the entry form next to another form that encouraged visitors to send a message about the site to their employer. Forwarding a message to an employer was not a requirement for entry.
- Add to marketing material
They added sweepstakes messaging to their flyers and website (see creative samples below), and also asked the street teams to emphasize that commuters could "win a free year of commuting" by visiting the site.Step #6. PR and social media outreach
The team also reached people through social media channels.
They found local commuter- and bicycling-focused groups and blogs that were particularly responsive. The team made the program’s potential savings -- not the sweepstakes -- the central point of their social media outreach.
- One-to-one messaging
The team searched social networks and the Web to find people talking about commuting, fare hikes and public transit to tell them about the website.
- Pitching bloggers and local news
The team identified and pitched about 100 commuting-oriented blogs. They sought relevant blogs, even if they had a small number of readers, to ensure they reached appropriate audiences.
Transit rate hikes were a hot topic at the time, so the team used that angle to pitch local newspapers in the three target markets as well.
- Groups and professionals
The team mentioned the program to relevant Facebook groups and HR professionals on LinkedIn and linked to their website.
After adding the contest, the campaign was "fantastic from that point on," says Doak.
"That really helped push traffic to the site. This was a huge success. We’re in the process of retooling it to relaunch in May of this year."
The team captured more than 2,000 leads in the form of employer and HR representative email addresses during the six-week campaign -- 14% more than their goal for the entire year.
"That is just a ridiculous number," says Doak.
The street teams distributed about 324,750 handouts during the campaign, which generated 5,755 visits to the website, or about a 1.8% visitation rate.
Results for the viral website:
o 2 minutes, 31 second average time on site
o 11,542 total visitors
o 52% visit-to-contest conversion rate
o 17.3% visit-to-lead conversion rate
o 88% of traffic directly to site
o 12% of traffic from referral sites
o 80 tours created
Every video tour created and forwarded to an employer generated 4.3 additional visits to the site.
The campaign’s success brought the strategy to other Accor business units, says Doak. Also, the one transit agency that declined to work with the team for this effort is now on board and providing free station access and advertising for this year’s campaign, says Doak.
"That’s from an agency [which had] never offered to do anything with us. That’s enough for me."Useful links related to this article
Creative Samples from Accor’s viral/street team strategy:
MarketingSherpa’s Viral Hall of Fame 2009: Top 7 Campaigns
One Pica: Helped the team design campaign strategy and materials
Elite Marketing: Helped the team staff street teams
BikeBlogNYC: Commuter Nation post
Commuter Nation: Team’s viral website
Accor Services USA