April 09, 2003
Case Study

How to Create a Viral Email Campaign That Circles the Globe in 15 Minutes (Sample Included)

SUMMARY: It is the little email postcard that could! Hear what LifeWay Christian Resources learned when they tested a viral campaign to promote a new bible studies course.

You can use this step-by-step Case Study as a practical guide to create your own campaign. There are loads of details on tactics such as how to pick the right lists to send your "seed" invite to. Includes a sample of the card that circled the globe.
LifeWay Christian Resources already had one viral marketing success under their belt when they looked at ways to promote their new online bible study course, hosted by well-known personality Beth Moore.

When the viral route popped up in a brainstorming session with their consultants on the project, Seventh Impression, they were all ears.

Michael Epps Utley, Marketing Coordinator at LifeWay, says, "We knew if we could reach folks with an interest in the product then it would sell itself. We wanted to equip the core interest groups out there to do the marketing for us."

As Laura Tidwell of Seventh Impression puts it, "With viral marketing, some go real great for a little while and they die out. Others don't take off quite like you hoped. You never really know; it's not a science."

Apart from the hit-and-miss nature of viral campaigns, LifeWay also had a brand image to protect, as the second largest Christian retailer in the US and a major service provider to churches.

Then there is also the small issue of making sure the campaign is not just viral, but reaches the right prospects too. All of which explains why viral marketing is about more than just asking people to forward email.

Here is what LifeWay did to meet the challenge:

Utley and his team took five steps to ensure the best chance of viral and sales success.

-> Step #1: Define the requirements

The team first outlined the factors that would guide their choice of approach and specific design.

A. Hit the right audience

Utley was mainly aiming at Christian women with an interest in bible study, and likely to be of an "evangelical" nature. He knew that an element of evangelism was necessary to drive interest in the "Believing God" study course, it would not be enough to just be nominally Christian.

B. Lever this audience's characteristics to maximize the likely viral effect

By its nature, the target audience would be receptive to the idea of spreading Christian values in a quasi-missionary sense, something that could be applied in the viral design.

C. Drive sales but avoid overt commercialism

Obviously sales were the ultimate goal, but Utley did not want to hit people directly with a commercial message, given the spiritual nature of the project. Instead, he wanted the viral messaging to fit the theme of the product, and gradually draw prospects in to a more commercial sales message.

D. Address global and control issues

By going viral, you inevitably lose some control over where your material is sent and how it is presented. That is sometimes a problem for big brands accustomed to tight control over messaging. Utley wanted a solution that minimized this kind of exposure and one that would travel well.

E. Engage the audience and provide multiple contact opportunities

Utley also wanted to move beyond viral 101, with its "one-time pass-on" approach. Instead, he wanted to engage the audience more closely, and expose them again and again to the LifeWay brand, message and website.

Utley explains, "We wanted folks to have fun, to be engaged, to have multiple opportunities to experience our site and the product for sale in a way that would give them a reason to come back."

-> Step #2: Design the solution

After much brainstorming, the team settled on an epostcards solution. The idea would be to send selected people an epostcard from LifeWay, and then let them send a card themselves to friends and colleagues.

OK, nothing new about that, but the key difference was in the detail and innovative execution.

A. The email invite

A first email would go out inviting people to view an epostcard with a spiritual message from LifeWay.

Tidwell says, "We knew the Christian community likes to do missionary work and share their religious beliefs or spiritual ideas with others. So we thought being able to send a spiritual message would be a good idea."

B. The epostcard

Clicking through takes the recipient to a postcard-sized browser window with a flash-based epostcard (see below for links to creative) featuring photographic images, text and audio.

Three different postcard themes were selected; "Faith", "Thank you for being my friend..." and "God loves you."

The texts all included scripture quotes, to fit the product theme, and were designed to be as inclusive as possible. Utley says, "We thought very carefully about producing messages that could go to anyone in the world."

There was no commercial message in the epostcard. Tidwell explains, "We wanted to make sure it wasn't too intrusive, not 'you have to come to this bible study.'"

C. The viral page

Once the epostcard finishes displaying, the window resizes to the "viral" page, built around three elements:

- Thumbnails of the three cards, with links to "send" and "preview" pages
- Beth Moore branding images and audio, with a mention of the bible study course in explanatory text (still no pushy sales content though)
- Information about email tracking (this is the *really* cool bit)

D. The send page

Clicking send or preview brings up a copy of the chosen epostcard, together with a form allowing the user to specify the recipient's and sender's name, email and country, plus customize the subject line only. This page is also branded with a "Believing God" banner.

Since the sender only gets to choose a subject line, this left LifeWay in control over every other presentation and messaging aspect of the viral campaign.

E. Send confirmation page

On sending an epostcard, an email invite goes to the recipient and a confirmation page appears for the sender. The confirmation includes a thank you message, an opportunity to send more epostcards, plus the option to sign-up for an "inspirations and news" opt-in email list.

F. The landing page

When the epostcard first appears, it does so concurrently with a "popunder" which is the landing page for the bible study course. It is not your standard popunder though. It first appears as a 20 x 20 pixel browser window. Closing the viral window (or its successors) resizes the browser so the landing page is visible.

The idea is to avoid the phenomenon of an unexpected popup, but also to ensure that the landing page is only seen *after* the prospect has moved through the other epostcard and viral pages.

In this way, the campaign introduced prospects gradually to ever-increasing intensities of sale messages, so the transition from spiritual message to commercial message was a smooth continuum.

Chris Tidwell of Seventh Impression explains, "We set the stage, and stimulated that emotion where they would be receptive to what the eventual popunder was saying."

G. The tracking page

After a prospect has sent an epostcard, they get a confirmation email with a link to their personal tracking page. This page includes:

1. A map of the globe with thumbtacks showing the locations (US state or country) of people who received an epostcard from that prospect, plus the locations of all recipients of emails sent through subsequent tiers. The map can be magnified and scrolled left and right, and also gives totals by country.

In other words, you can see how the epostcards you sent have snowballed into more and more epostcards around the globe (try it, it is fun!)

2. Beth Moore branding and an ad for the course.

3. Thumbnails of the epostcards so the prospect can send more.

The theory was that the tracking page would encourage repeat visits, appeal to the evangelical nature of the audience, and boost pass-ons.

Utley says, "It wasn't just a quick pass-long. It was a pass-along that gave them an opportunity to come back. So we reach more people and reach people more often."

By engaging people like this in the viral "evangelical" process, Utley also wanted to develop a close association between the viral effort and the community nature of the sales product.

Utley adds, "We tried to replicate with the viral piece the experience they would have with the end result. It's not just a neat thing to do with a product that is very different. We used Beth Moore's image, voice, and video with the viral campaign. There was a lot of familiarity built in."

-> Step #3: Pre-test internally

After ironing out technical bugs in internal tests, Utley tested the program using his own employee email list.

He used the company's email and print newsletter to let people know that the invite email would be arriving and invite feedback. This produced three important results.

First, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, confirming the validity of the basic idea. Utley says, "The virality exploded out of the box." So much so, that they had to reset the database before launching the formal campaign.

They also learnt the importance of personalizing the email invites using the form data provided by senders. They also changed from a straight popup to the resized pop-under solution used in the final campaign.

-> Step #4: Identify or develop tier 1 seed lists

Of course having a viral mechanism in place is meaningless if you can not get the initial material out there.

As Laura Tidwell puts it, "It can never even get out of the gate if the first set of emails isn't done right. The great magic of viral marketing is the email comes from a friend. The challenge is the first postcard from LifeWay."

LifeWay decided to seed the campaign using opt-in email lists from three sources, at minimum targeted to women who were interested in Christianity.

A. Opt-in house lists collected through their own event, retail and website operations.

B. Specific-purpose opt-in house lists

Before the campaign started, LifeWay had already been collecting sign-ups from the Beth Moore pages for people wanting to receive weekly information about the study course. They had 25,000 prime seed names already in place.

C. Third party opt-in rental lists

Utley approached a variety of list providers, both religious websites such as Crosswalk and generalist providers like AOL and Juno, and came up with up to 80 "recommended" lists. Then he sat down and went though the demographics to find the right lists for his needs.

Utley says, "It was a lot of work. All the lists had different breakdowns, filters, configurations etc. And what I had to do was take a concept of religious identity and find a way to understand how list demographics were collected to see if there was a good match."

The problem was that, for example, knowing a list of women had ticked a box marked "Christian" was not enough.

Utley explains, "I asked, 'well, what were the other boxes they could have checked?'. And if those other boxes were Hindu, Moslem etc., then that told me the 'Christians' were actually probably 'Westerners,' i.e. Christian by default because they might have grown up in a nominally Christian western culture. It didn't tell me that those people were necessarily going to get excited about an online bible study."

With no real matchable demographics to go on, he turned to intuitive analysis of what characteristics might match the flavor of his desired audience.

One example was to find lists of people who had purchased religious items online in a western Christian context.

Utley notes, "These people were committed enough to this way of thinking that they wanted to make a purchase online. It takes a lot of motivation to make a purchase. So there was probably a good affinity there."

Careful targeting of opt-in addresses also addressed the concern about protecting the brand image.

Says Utley, "We were careful to protect the user experience by only selecting opt-in and double opt-in lists. We were also sending [the invite] to folks who would probably be in agreement with the overall thrust of the study."

-> Step #5: Test lists and release mailings

Armed with sets of email, text, visual and audio creative, Utley tested each list individually to find the best match for that particular demographic mix.

He adds, "Because each list was created with a different set of questions or survey answers, we tested creative and configurations for each individual placement - that's hard work that most folks aren't doing."

He also tested different configurations or filters from each list provider.

He explains, "If a list owner had folks who'd purchased religious items online and folks with an interest in religion, then we'd test 5% of each, and send the remaining impressions to the filter/list that performed best."

Beginning in late fall, 2002, the emails were sent out to the various seed lists.

For each email sent to the tier 1 address lists, LifeWay got more than 12 visits to an epostcard. In other words, a "traditional" email promotion would need a CTR of some 1200% to match the viral effect!

Throw in that many of the first tier emails did not attract a click, then the *actual* viral effect is really much higher. Utley says, "It was so successful that we're going to do another one this September for another bible study."

Chris Tidwell adds, "We didn't track where the first emails went out to, only those that were sent virally. Within 15 mins, the globe was covered, just about every country."

While she did not reveal the exact numbers, Laura Tidwell says the tracking facility was a big contributor to success.

She explains, "It was a big motivating factor for this demographic to see how much of an effect they would have on the world. People were very touched and even emailed to say how thankful they were for the opportunity to share the message with others."

Other results from the campaign:

- More than 20,000 sales were directly attributable to the viral campaign. The campaign's branding and awareness impacts likely produced many indirect sales, too.

- The epostcard pages garnered more than 20,000 new opt-in sign-ups for a LifeWay "inspirations and news" list.

- By the time tracking stopped, the campaign had reached as many as 42 tiers of propagation.

- The emails sent to third-party rental lists produced an average CTR of 4.66%. This success is explained partly through the diligent targeting efforts and the probable familiarity of many recipients with the LifeWay brand.

- A small in-house list used in tier 1 achieved a CTR of 90% (further evidence of the importance of building your own lists!).

- Emails sent to subsequent tiers (i.e. from peer-to-peer) achieved CTRs in excess of 90%.

Tidwell says they had anticipated the lower CTR from tier 1 emails. He explains, "It appeared to be commercial just because it came from LifeWay Christian Resources. After that the magic happened."

Useful links:

Sample ecard + sample notes to sender & recipient:

LifeWay's page with ecard offer (see bottom of page):


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