December 17, 2008
Case Study

Two Campaigns for the Price of One: Holiday E-card Goes Viral Twice

SUMMARY: The recession has your budget in a squeeze. Wouldn’t it be great to get twice the exposure from a single campaign – at absolutely no extra cost?

Take a look at this holiday viral marketing campaign that was so successful we featured it as a Case Study more than a year ago. Then it had an unexpected and unplanned second successful viral run that didn’t cost a dime more.
Enlighten had been sending out an email holiday card since the late 1990s – when they were a fun novelty. But, by 2005, so many holiday e-cards were going out that the chances of a campaign standing out in the in-box – let alone going viral – were slim.

Enlighten's creative team loved doing the campaigns, however, and their clients looked forward to getting a new card each year. So, CEO Steve Glauberman gave his team the go-ahead for the December 2005 card campaign with this mandate: It had to show measurable success -- not just be warm and fuzzy.

Glauberman wanted brand building, media attention, viral traffic, and an engaging landing page experience that would lead to at least one serious proposal request from a new "name-brand" client.

The creative and marketing team used five steps to turn a potentially run-of-the-mill email campaign into a measurable business-building bonanza.


Step #1. Start early

It's the shoemakers' children thing -- most agencies and consultancies are too busy focusing on client campaigns to do a great job on their own. "I admit, we don't always get out a card every year because we get too busy," Glauberman says ruefully.

This year, the team started extra early, holding their planning meetings in September. Final creative was due December 2 for a December 7 drop date. Marketing Director Tom Beck says: "To get the most from the card, we needed to beat the rush. Most e-cards go out after the 15th."

Step #2. Clever concept

These days, typical “shovelware” (e-cards that look like print cards with a little music and Flash movement) won't get many recipients excited enough to forward. The team also tried to avoid done-to-death viral holiday games, such as the build-your-own-snowman concept.

Instead, they came up with an entirely new idea, the Holiday Party Excuse Generator. Each recipient would click to a landing page to answer a few fun questions (e.g., type of party; the nature of the excuse, etc.) Plus, to make the experience more entertaining, a cartoon snowman acted out a little role based on each answer the visitor gave to each question.

Based on each visitor's answers, the system created a personal excuse letter they could send to get out of going to a party. If they wanted to tweak the letter, they could change answers and get a new one. More than 268 million variations were possible.

At the end, visitors had the option of emailing the letter to their party host; sending a friend an invite to play with the excuse generator, or visiting Enlighten's site to learn more about the company.

Step #3. Get the word out (carefully)

No matter how clever you think your creative is, if you blast it out to the universe, you could seriously annoy people and even get your company's server blacklisted.

So, when the card was ready for launch, Tom Beck sent an instruction note to all staff that contained four critical rules:

1. Do not bombard clients with multiple emails. Before you send, check with other staff who might also send to the same client.

2. Don't send hundreds of emails at once – this could look like spam activity to ISPs.

3. Be prepared to handle bounces and replies to your email.

4. Position your short note on top of the card and your creative above folds because people don't scroll down much.

Step #4. Involve the press

Beck sent out the e-cards to his personal press list (all reporters he had a previous relationship with) on the launch day. Then, one week later, he sent a formal pitch note to the same reporters to see if they'd like to write a story. Unlike the colorful HTML e-card, the pitch note was text-only. (Link to sample below.)

He also submitted the landing page as a prospect for Macromedia's Flash Site of the Day (link to nomination form below.)

Step #5. Prep your corporate homepage

Beck had the Web team tweak the top of Enlighten's homepage to include a prominent hotlink to the Excuse Generator. He wanted to make sure that regular visitors would discover it, and the newbies clicking over from the Excuse page to the main site knew they were at the right company.

He also had a new white paper offer added to the homepage, in addition to the popular Case Studies tab, so that qualified prospects would be as engaged by the site as possible.

Year One
The team sent out just under 3,500 initial e-cards. Bounce rates for some staff members’ personal lists were high. So, roughly 3,000 e-cards reached recipients.

The viral impact worked, though. From December 7-31, just under 50,000 unique visitors hit the landing page. Glauberman notes the traffic stats chart looked like "Mount Everest with a dramatic peak."

These visitors wound up sending a total of 20,000 email excuses to party hosts (many just played with the system for fun).

The press campaign was a critical part of the traffic growth – it resulted in as much as 60% of traffic. In addition to winning Macromedia Site of the Day, the excuse generator was mentioned in (and often linked to) Detroit Free Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Ann Arbor News, Communication Arts, TBS Blog (Turner Broadcasting), and PC Magazine Blog.

During the same three-week period, Enlighten's main corporate site traffic rose by 400%, compared to similar time frames. Interestingly, these new visitors behaved very differently from typical traffic – the virally-fed newbies spent 50%-75% more time on the corporate site than average audience, indicating a higher degree of interest.

This newbie interest resulted in not one but five serious requests for proposals from large "companies you have heard of" for possible work in 2006.

Best of all, the creative team began dreaming up ways the personalized excuse letter generator could be used for other campaigns and holidays. Can anyone say Valentine's Day?

Year Two
The campaign showed its real viral worth when Glauberman’s team got two campaigns for the price of one.

In December 2007, one year after launching the excuse generator, the How About Orange blog wrote a quick post on the holiday tool. Two days later, it was mentioned in the popular blog, Daily Candy, and traffic spiked again.

“We ended up receiving almost equal the traffic in 2007 that we received in 2006 with absolutely no push on our side...We didn’t promote it [in 2007] at all,” Glauberman says.

A key to the second buzz?

The excuse generator’s page did not mention dates, and its content was not time-sensitive. And it had a long shelf life. There was no clear way for visitors to know when the page was created. Anyone who found the excuse generator in 2007 could have thought it was brand new.

“If you can create a campaign that doesn’t cost a lot of dollars and has the potential to get people talking about it and sharing it and spreading it, to me, that’s always great in any kind of climate, but certainly now when marketing dollars are getting more closely scrutinized,” he says.

Useful links related to this article:

Macromedia's Site of the Day Showcase Nomination Form:

Holiday Excuse Generator landing page microsite:

How About Orange: Excuse generator post

Daily Candy: Excuse generator mention


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