January 05, 2006
Case Study

Viral Holiday Email Card That Broke the Boredom Barrier

SUMMARY: Back in 1998, emailed holiday cards were a fun novelty. These days marketers sending emailed holiday greetings have a tough time impressing anyone besides their own accounting department. However, this December one agency's e-card was so creative that it landed major media and blog attention, 50,000 mainly viral visits, and gained the agency proposal requests from five new brand-name clients. Yes, our exclusive Case Study includes creative samples:
CHALLENGE Like all-too-many agencies and vendors in the interactive advertising and marketing space, Enlighten has been sending out an email holiday card since the late 1990s. 

Everyone in this industry has gotten so many holiday ecards that they are bored, bored, bored with them. The chances of a holiday card campaign standing out in the in-box, let alone going viral are exceedingly slim.

That said, Enlighten's creative team loved doing them because it showed off their capabilities. Plus, top clients looked forward to the new card each year.

However, Enlighten CEO Steve Glauberman is a true businessman. When he gave his team the go-ahead to start working on the December 2005 card campaign he told them it would have to bring in measurable success -- not just client warm-fuzzies.

He 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 dull 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 2nd for a December 7th drop date. Marketing Director Tom Beck notes, "To get the most from the card, we needed to beat the rush. Most ecards go out after the 15th."

Step #2. Clever concept

Typical shovelware (ecards that look like print cards only with a little music and a titch of Flash movement) won't get anyone except perhaps your mother excited enough to forward these days. 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 concept, the Holiday Party Excuse Generator. Each recipient would click to a landing page where they were asked to answer a few fun questions (type of party, how angry or nice did the excuse need to be?, 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 super-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 (link to sample below), including:

- Do not bombard clients with multiple emails. Check with other staff who might also send to the same client before you send.

- Don't send hundreds of emails at once which could look like spam activity to ISPs.

- Be prepared to handle bounces and replies that come back to you.

- Keep your personal note short for the top of the card because folks don't scroll much and you want to keep creative above folds. Step #4. Proactively involve the press

Beck sent out the ecards to his personal press list (all reporters he'd had previous relationship with) on the launch day. Then one week later he sent a formal pitch note to the same press to see if they'd like to write a story. Unlike the colorful HTML ecard, the pitch note appeared to be 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 home page

Beck asked the Web team to tweak Enlighten's home page top include a prominent hotlink to the Excuse Generator so that regular visitors would discover it and also so that newbies clicking over from the Excuse page to the main site would be reassured they were at the right company.

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

RESULTS The team sent out just under 3,500 initial ecards. Some of the staffers who had the biggest personal lists also had the highest bounce rates -- one had a 20% hard bounce rate. So roughly 3,000 ecards probably actually reached recipients.

However, the viral affect worked. From December 7-December 31st, 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 instead.)

This means the press campaign was a critical part of the traffic growth -- resulting 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 from) Ann Arbor News, Detroit Free Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, 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 periods in the past three months. 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 traffic, indicating a higher degree of educational 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 are now dreaming up ways the personalized excuse letter generator can be used for other campaigns and holidays -- can anyone say Valentine's Day?

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples http://www.marketingsherpa.com/enlighten/study.html

Macromedia's Site of the Day Showcase Nomination Form: http://www.macromedia.com/cfusion/showcase/index.cfm?event=submit&loc=en_us

Holiday Excuse Generator landing page microsite http://holiday.enlighten.com

Enlighten http://www.enlighten.com

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