November 14, 2008

PR Interview: Reach Elusive College-Age Demographic With Guerilla Stunts, Social Media, Traditional PR: 8 Steps

SUMMARY: The college-age demographic is a difficult one to reach. Bombarded with information, they are adept at tuning out what they don’t want to hear.

See how one agency got them to care about AirTran’s standby flight program for 18- to 22-year-olds by integrating social media, traditional PR, and guerilla stunts. The campaign boosted standby flight sales by almost a third.
Contact Information
Rob Merritt, APR
Senior Vice President, Director
225 N. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60601

How to Reach 18- to 22-year-olds: 8 Steps

The goal of the PR campaign was to revitalize AirTran’s declining standby flight program for 18- to 22-year-olds. Here’s the way Merritt and his team got the attention of this hard-to-reach demographic.

Step #1. Invite interns to brainstorming sessions

This was a key to the campaign’s success, says Rich Mules, Managing Supervisor in charge of the AirTran account. CKPR interns came up with insights that other team members couldn’t get right because of their disconnect from the demographic. “We really used our interns as a resource,” he says.

Step #2. Keep an open mind

Keep an open mind when starting a campaign of this nature. Let all ideas come into the fold before disregarding them.

“Once you start putting those ideas together, they’ve got to be on strategy for the brand,” says Merritt. “You have to tie it to the brand and what the brand stands for.”

CKPR accomplished this by playing on the not-too-serious nature of the AirTran brand. This approach gave the team the opportunity to push the creative envelope.

Step #3. Create a persona

The college-age group is notoriously skeptical of corporate messaging. So, the CKPR team wanted to create a personality that the young people could interact with instead.

They came up with the idea of a fake university called AirTranU. Then, they made the face of the campaign the university’s mascot – a female sheep named Eunice the Ewe. The name played on the letter “U.”

Step #4. Create a YouTube contest

The team launched a YouTube contest to create buzz about Eunice the Ewe and the AirTranU standby flight program. The contest required entrants to create a cheer and dance for Eunice the Ewe, while wearing sheep masks which were available for download via a link underneath the video.

The prize: 4 roundtrip flights on AirTran. Anyone could vote on the winning video by going to the AirTranU YouTube channel. (See useful links.)

The YouTube contest went viral. Entrants sent links of their videos to friends, so that they could vote for their entries. This drove traffic to the YouTube channel, which had messaging about the standby flight program and links to the AirTran website.

Step #5. Create Facebook, MySpace, Friendster profiles

The team used Eunice the Ewe as the persona for Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster profiles they created. They posted videos of Eunice doing different activities, such as bowling, competing in a co-ed Twister tournament on the beach, and arm wrestling other university mascots.

They also created links between the social media profiles, the YouTube channel, the AirTranU site, and registration pages for a sweepstakes and A+ Rewards program.

Step #6. Organize guerilla stunts to promote the contest

The team identified 20 to 25 universities in AirTran’s top five markets. They ordered 10 mascot costumes. They sent the costumes to the five markets, so that stunts would be pulled off at the same time.

At universities, the mascots:
-walked around
-did impromptu stunts (e.g., joining an exercise class on the college green)
-handed out Eunice masks with directions on how to enter the YouTube contest printed on the back
-handed out T-shirts
-put masks on dorm room doors

The team did not work with university administration to get permission for being on campuses. “Obviously, we were respectful,” Merritt says. “If asked to leave a campus, we left a campus, but most of the time it was fine.”

In addition, the team shipped a mascot costume to Daytona Beach during spring break. For three weeks at Daytona Beach, the mascot:
-walked the beach
-handed out masks and T-shirts
-participated in hot body contests

Perhaps the most successful stunt was an appearance with the crowd huddled outside of NBC’s ‘The Today Show’ studio in New York City. At ‘The Today Show,’ the mascot:
-handed out masks and T-shirts
-got coverage on the show by standing in the windows behind the show’s anchors
(See useful links.)

NOTE: Another way the team promoted the YouTube contest was by sending an email about the contest to AirTran’s opt-in “.edu” domain email addresses.

Step #7. Join conversations in the blogosphere

The contest got a lot of buzz on consumer blogs, says Mules. People were posting about it and directing people to YouTube to enter.

“We don’t pitch bloggers,” Merritt says. “What we do is try to measure the conversation going on in that space … and be part of it.”

The team joined blog conversations about AirTranU and the YouTube contest when there was a question or misinformation. When they joined a conversation, they always identified themselves as AirTran, says Merritt.

Step #8. Launch an aggressive traditional PR campaign

The team also embarked on an aggressive traditional PR campaign while launching the social media profiles, the YouTube contest, and guerilla stunts. They pitched:
- industry publications
- reporters and editors who cover the aviation industry
-local newspapers and media covering the markets where stunts were taking place

The campaign ran from January to June 2007. During that time, the team:

-generated about 17 million media impressions from the traditional PR campaign, including front page coverage by a Daytona Beach newspaper during the spring break stunt

-had about 25,000 unique visits to the AirTranU YouTube channel

-gained 547 friends for Eunice the Ewe’s Facebook profile

- saw a 30% increase in the number of standby flights sold to 18- to 22-year-olds during the campaign.

Useful links related to this article

AirTranU YouTube channel:

AirTranU contest entry intro:

AirTranU contestant video:

Eunice the Ewe mascot on “The Today Show:”

Eunice the Ewe’s Facebook page:

AirTranU website:

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