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Nov 13, 2006
Case Study

How to Combine Local PR and Goodwill Email for High ROI and Media Exposure

SUMMARY: Let’s face it, the connection that consumers feel to a brand during staged philanthropy events is iffy at best. Those six-feet-long donation checks and cordial handshakes can come off as pretty darned dry.

Thank goodness that better ways to market in this fashion exist. What if you could acquire customers by making TV viewers and newspaper readers feel like they are experiencing something truly special?

See how one eretailer achieved gigantic ROI with a goodwill campaign heavy on local PR. Set-up instructions, tips, creative samples and results data:
Philanthropic marketing can be tricky because the company doing it shouldn’t appear at all eager for sales -- especially when part of the campaign hinges on the public’s emotional support for US military in the Middle East. Simply put, no marketer wants to be accused of aggressively tapping the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

Even with the touchy situation, Canvas On Demand had the right product to create sales and authentically do good socially. After a successful-but-lower-level PR run for Valentine’s Day, Josef Schmidt, President Canvas On Demand, set a goal to bring 200 soldiers closer to their moms in heart and mind for Mother’s Day with a free 16-inch-by-20-inch picture canvas.

Initial problem spots that came up:
-> Prospecting for hundreds of soldiers overseas who would like to participate.
-> Maximizing exposure by securing participants from big markets.
-> Getting the oft-humble military mothers to cooperate to a media event or two.

“The campaign originated from our philosophy that companies can do financially well while also doing good things,” Schmidt says. “You can create programs that touch people’s lives and make a difference, and the campaigns can make you money.”

Here are the four steps his team followed:

Step #1. Email recruiting to Baghdad and Kabul

To get the word out to soldiers about the free gift, Schmidt’s team emailed their entire past customer database, informing recipients of Operation Hi Mom! and encouraging email forwards to others who might be interested. They also added a “Tell a Friend” button to the site.

Banner ads were deployed at military sites to push traffic to the signup page. Because of the patriotic theme to the effort, they used lots of stars-and-stripes imagery in the emails and banner ads (see link to creative samples below).

Then, emails were exchanged with the soldiers, explaining the process of extending the gift to their moms. Soldiers who agreed to appear as ‘surprise guests’ on morning television shows were instructed how to notify fathers, husbands, siblings and extended family about the event without letting their mothers know.

Step #2. TV & Newspaper Push

More than 400 media contacts in 83 markets (23 pegged as top tier) were targeted for the publicity blitz, focusing on the top-rated TV stations and high-circulation daily newspapers.

Luckily, nearly 90% of the military respondents gave permission to use their images and words for marketing use. This permitted Schmidt’s team not only to use the images on TV programs but also to include the soldiers’ personally written Mother’s Day messages in press releases to stations and newspapers.

Program directors and managing editors received slightly different email press releases. In the TV pitch, the messaging centered on Canvas On Demand’s offer to create a patriotic programming event, while the newspaper release stressed the idea of a heartwarming Mother’s Day story concerning the troops.

In both cases, the releases addressed who the mother and soldier were by name, as well as the fact that they were local. Support calls for the TV side were employed until the station committed to coverage, sometimes after an exclusivity deal was leveraged.

“We had a big whiteboard up on the wall with all of our potential dates and cities,” Schmidt explains. “And we just tried to knock them all out going into the holiday.”

Follow-up email was huge in organizing the media events. Television stations were told that they could either do the show on their own or have Schmidt make an appearance.

Mid-campaign list maintenance included splitting files between places where Schmidt would appear on TV and where he wouldn’t. Segments were also broken up geographically for markets with either one or several mothers participating.

Step #3. Road Show

Schmidt appeared on morning shows in Phoenix, Denver and Washington, DC, among others. The Fox channel in Washington even included live footage of the soldier, who was able to talk to his mom. The news report mentioned a 10% discount at the beginning and end of the 20-minute segment.

That was more than enough for Schmidt. “It was just good TV. No one was being taken advantage of. The mom was getting a real treat.”

Step #4. Creating low-budget PR campaigns

Schmidt’s team accrued a list of media contacts through online sources, including PR Newswire’s Media Atlas and PR Web. Here is a list of other tips on what to do and what not to do:

o Don’t get discouraged with your first list effort. Expect some bounces and undeliverable emails. Keep building and maintaining its accuracy. The list will look much better after your second or third campaign.
o Give media outlets a rich variety of options on how to frame the coverage.
o Guarantee exclusivity in bigger, competitive markets if you have to.
o Your company should always remain a secondary part of the story. Too much salesmanship will ruin the philanthropic mood.
o Focus on viral email instead of spending time and money on fancy things for the TV broadcasts.


All in all, 213 solders enlisted in the Operation Hi Mom! campaign. “We were happy to exceed 200 and certainly were not going to turn away a few extra,” Schmidt says.

As for the bottom line, “we made 10 [times] what we spent on the entire campaign. We saw a lift of more than 15% for Mother’s Day when compared to what we would have done without the campaign. We also created a buzz around the products that led to our Father’s Day sales being higher.”

Publicity-wise, Schmidt was invited to appear with the mothers on enough local TV shows to fill up two weeks of long drives, flights and cab rides before Mother’s Day.

“We saw [mid-markets] like Denver and Phoenix end up being some of our top sales markets,” he says. “We didn’t hire a news clipping service because, in the end, that’s an expense that’s only for the amusement of ourselves. Plus, we know we are going to keep doing this and don’t need to be convinced.”

The Tell-A-Friend button on the site and in the initial email proved to be a boon for viral activity. Schmidt’s team tracked forwards on the campaign well into the summer. Scores of thank-you letters, cards and emails came in.

In addition, Operation Hi Mom! encouraged brand loyalty by keeping all of the soldiers’ pictures and letters available online. 49% of the viewers have come back for repeat visits. “We still find people regularly thumbing through the Hi Mom sections,” Schmidt says. “The campaign was the most satisfying marketing experience I have ever had.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Operation Hi Mom!:

Howard, Merrell & Partners – the PR agency that drove the publicity machine:

Bronto Software Inc. - the email marketing services firm that facilitated messaging in the campaign:

Canvas On Demand:

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