I am not a big fan of quirky game or activity microsites that brands put together as an alternative to advertising. Too many advertising-driven marketers turn to this form of 'branded entertainment' first as it seems like a natural extension of the stroy-telling capacity fo their ad agencies of advertising leadership. Traffic to microsites feels as good as ad impressions, etc.. But they can play an important role and be hugely popular which can be helpful to the brand.
OfficeMax's Elf Yourself is hugely popular. They have done it for three years running. I laughed my you-know-what off when I saw Christine Cea and her band of marcom execs from Unilever "Elf" themselves at our WOMM workshop in December. (This past year's effort was powered by JibJab - check out Random Culture's coverage) By December 13th 2008, AdRants reported these figures:
- ElfYourself.com has served over 65 million visitors thus far
- Over 41 million elves have been made since mid-November*
- 35 new elves are created per second
- The average time people spend on Elf Yourself is equivalent to 800 years (based on total site visits times average time per visit)
In this past week's Business Week, Bob Thacker, SVP of marcom at OfficeMax, talked about competing with Staples and teh like when their ad budgets outweigh his measly $15m (that's just their newspaper spend). And while the holiday time is a high revenue time for them, the ad clutter out there is dense and immovable. So, did he charge his agency with creating the cut and paste cut-up, Elf Yourself? No.
Experiment Broadly and Concurrently
He asked his team to create 20 different, holiday-themed microsites. many fell by the way-side. Elf Yourself took-off. that experimental approach is key to suceeding today. The days of researching adn "cathedral-building" a campaign must die. No one, no expert of any kind, knows exactly what will work especially when it comes to this narrow world of "viral campaigns.' The best professional advice is to poise yourself for experiments and be ready to dial up the effective ones. And time, 'she's-a-wastin.' Do a few things at once or in a short period of time. No one has the stamina for 6 months of testing what might work.
This is a big shift. Many ad agencies have either a creative or planner-dominated culture. Both can be 'cathedral-builders.' And the best of them are great salespeople on the brand value of cathedral building. They can really suck you in.
Stay nimble. Try things. Be willing to be imperfect. Measure everyday. Make a change up when something doesn't work (and know when you need to commit more energy and effort to prove out the model, too). That's what I have learned form this example and many others.
The Next Experiment
Now that Officemax has a perennial winner with Elf Yourself, will they continue to apply the experimental approach to find the next marcom approach that works? Will they dive into utility in addition to entertainment?
(thanks to xcaballe on FlickR for the EflYourself CC image)