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Apr 18, 2002
Case Study

Viral Marketing That Grabs Women's Attention: eCards, Newsletters, Free Email Boxes, and Petitions

SUMMARY: If you are looking for low-cost tactics to get your current site visitors to recommend you to all of their friends, this is the Case Study for you.

Includes practical tips on how to make sure free e-card offers work (note: this is a tactic used by many sites including Oil of Olay and Singapore Airlines). We also think's offshoot marketing site is very, very clever. Read on for more details.

The goal of, Inc. is to be the online middleman between consumers who care about the environment, and the brand marketers and non-profits who want to reach them.

Founder & CEO Randy Paynter explains that there are millions of these consumers who are mainly educated women with an above average household income. "We call them 'light green consumers.'" They care about the environment, but do not have the time or energy to make a difference. We want to be their resource for every day useful services; kind of like a Yahoo for the environment."

However, unlike other Web sites with ambitions to be mainstream consumer portals, has never spent a dime on advertising. No TV, no radio, no print, no banners, no billboards.

How do you compete with all the other portal wanna-bes trying to attract millions of female consumers online?


Paynter says, "Any day of the week, I would spend my marketing budget on building a viral marketing tool over anything else. A particular ad campaign will last as long as your budget. If you spend $100,000 on banner ads, it is gone after you have spent your money. If you spend $100,000 building a viral tool, it will keep on producing value into the future."

Since (originally CareMail) launched in September 1998, the small in-house marketing team have focused their energies on four viral tactics to grow site traffic, gather opt-in emails, and then get those opt-ins continue in a long-term interactive relationship with the brand:

-> Viral Tactic #1: Free eCards

Prior to starting, Paynter co-founded, so it was natural for him to try this tactic again. currently offers visitors their choice of more than 5000 eCards to send to friends.

The cards are free, but during the process to send a card, visitors are asked if they would also like to opt-in for their choice of a wide variety of other free email services from Opting-in for additional services is not required however, because Paynter feels very strongly against harvesting an email address from an unwilling consumer, "It's absolutely the last thing we would ever do. It would destroy our reputation if we were seen as a spammer."

Instead, offers a variety of incentives to get people to opt-in for more services. For example, only registered members can add music to their cards.

Paynter notes these incentives can make a big difference, "There's no doubt it's getting much harder to get people to sign up for newsletters or to take action of any sort. I think people get so many opportunities and offers and emails that they're kind of overwhelmed. They're leery of handing over their email address. They've been burned too many times."

He adds, "I get so much spam in my mailbox it's ridiculous. You don't always know where it's coming from, so you're probably a little leery about signing up for everything."

What makes a free ecard offering work? Paynter's tips:

a. You need a large selection. The more choices, the more chances that visitors will find something they like and send it to a friend.

b. Clever, unique content helps ("In cards it comes down to fabulous content"), but you also need the old standbys such as a graphic of a birthday cake for a birthday card option. Paynter says, "It's kind of surprising. You'd think people would want something clever and different, but in reality birthday cakes do well."

c. "Animated cards clearly do better than the postcard variety. Music is also important."

d. Put the card sender's name in the "from" of the you've-got-a-card email notice, and in the subject line. That double whammy of a friend's name increases card pick-ups.

--> Viral Tactic #2: Email Newsletters & Alerts publishes half a dozen different email newsletters that visitors can sign up for. Again, just as with ecards, giving consumers their choice of different offerings definitely makes a difference in overall sign up rates, as well as the success of the newsletter down the line in terms of open rates, click throughs and continued readership.

Paynter notes, "If you can get someone to sign up, that's bang for the buck. Newsletters are the best way to go for long term relationships."

Visitors can also take their choice of "action alert" services. Unlike a newsletter, these lists will only send you email when something important happens that you need to be aware of -- for example you can opt-in to be alerted when important human rights legislation is pending.

Alert offers work particularly well for consumers who do not want the commitment of a regular newsletter. It is worth noting, all of's alert offers are for topics that visitors care about, such as animals or health. None are about specifically. You will not see an offer to "be alerted when has new services."

Both newsletters and alerts have terrific viral marketing value because when they contain compelling content, consumers pass them on and on and on.

-> Viral Tactic #3: Free Email Mailboxes

Back when began offering visitors free email mailboxes in 1998, it was a me-too proposition. All the portals had it so they did too. However, in this day and age when portals are either charging for mailbox services, or eliminating them altogether, offering a free mailbox is a more and more compelling marketing idea.

In fact, it is now something that Paynter thinks mainstream brand marketers should begin to consider to grow brand loyalty. His tips for carrying it off successfully:

a. Outsource the back-end unless you plan on hiring a whole bunch of people to run the project. Paynter uses

b. Do not bother if you can not guarantee your own site will be up 24/7 without glitches or enormous delays. "If your home page is down for 15 minutes, it's a very big deal to email users who can't get in to check their boxes."

c. Make sure your customer service department (or an outsourced facility) is prepared to respond to all questions and emails within 24 hours or less. Even though free email box services have been around for years, people still have a lot of questions about how to use them.

(Especially now that they are struggling with an increased spam burden.) If you can not react quickly to help mailbox users, that will reflect badly on your brand as a whole.

d. Get creative with your mailbox interface. This is where your brand message can really take off. Paynter says, "We have a very fun, environmentally-oriented interface. There are pictures of fun animals. It appeals to certain types of visitors and creates a stronger bond between those members and, so our members tend to use our mail service more than other free mail providers."

-> Viral Tactic #4:

Last spring, launched another viral marketing tool; in this case a separate Web site that users are compelled to interact with, sign up at, and tell all their friends about:

The site lists a wide variety of petitions on various environmental, human rights, and health issues. It accepts petitions on both sides of the political fence in order to be
fair, however, only the 'green' petitions are actively promoted.

Visitors can add their name and comments to the petition of their choice for free. Then, the petition is sent to appropriate legislators.

Just as with's ecards, the visitors are exposed to a selection of opt-in offers for newsletters and alerts during the process. It is a great way to gather opt-ins.


So far more than 1.8 million consumers have opted-in to receive emailed newsletters and/or alerts. 70% are female, 50% are over 30, and the majority are more affluent and educated than the average American. "It's a fabulous demographic," says Paynter.

The Web site gets about one million unique visitors a month. Although Paynter maintains email opt-ins are more important to his company's continued health than site visitors, he is proud of the fact that the site gets "more traffic than the other top 10 environmental sites combined."

The number of ecards sent per month "varies dramatically from 400,000 to over a million." The biggest surges occur during the holiday season, although has had success with occasional clever alternate holiday cards during slower months, such as a dancing groundhog for Groundhog Day.

This winter when several of the largest ecard services went to a paid subscription model, saw a "tremendous increase in free cards sent -- probably a 50% increase over the previous year." Paynter adds, "It was definitely due to paid sites, we were doing little better than the year before, then people went to paid, and all of the sudden our traffic spiked up."

Which bodes well for free email mailbox offerings in the future.

Currently about 100,000 consumers actively use email boxes at the site (inactive mailboxes are deleted after three months by the system). The petition site, which has not been marketed in any way save for notices in's emails and virally through visitors telling friends, is collecting signatures at a rapid rate.

For example, more than 200,000 visitors signed a petition for peace this fall. More than 100,000 visitors have signed a petition to stop oil exploration in artic wildlife refuges this spring.

And the names gathers for its own services and its partners tend to perform up to 300% better than names collected from other Internet co-registration networks. Paynter explains, "It's a better targeted audience. Just because two people may opt-in for a newsletter, that doesn't mean they'll perform for you at the same rate. It matters who they are."

Unlike Yahoo, which is losing money, Inc. has broken even for the past three quarters. Brands such as Newman's Own, Aveda and Nature valley Granola sponsor it. And more than 40 non-profits including World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy are partners.
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