I'm a regular follower of Ragan.com, a social network for public relations professionals such as myself. Occasionally, I stumble across some interesting articles of a general nature. Most recently, I found this excellent case study that demonstrates just how powerful the internet has become for non-profits and how much it really has become the great equalizer in terms of matching themselves against the PR budgets of large corporations. This most recent example of using email campaigns (something I believe most NPO and association professionals still can somewhat get their heads around) demonstrates the point and offers much of the essence of the counsel I offer clients. Enjoy! I'd love your comments :)
Viral video campaign draws 1 million viewers
By Zak Stambor
TriWest Healthcare ditches the standard press release in favor of a viral e-mail campaign
Last winter, TriWest Healthcare Alliance launched its first viral video e-mail campaign to raise money and awareness for Operation Homefront, a fund that provides emergency services and assistance to troops and their families. Within a year, nearly a million people had watched the video.
Before launching the campaign, TriWest had never used any social media tools. Whenever the group wanted to publicize a fundraising drive, it had always issued standard press releases.
But after Kristen Ward, a TriWest senior communications specialist, attended a conference on social media, she decided the organization needed to reach its audience—military stationed overseas and their families at home—where they were already looking.
"We could have reached out to the base papers, but we didn't know what portion of our audience that would reach," says Ward. "We knew they go online to check their e-mail. So we figured, 'Why not reach them via e-mail?'"
By doing so, says Ward, TriWest's campaign exceeded its wildest expectations.
Putting the e-mail together
Ward’s first step was to visit John Ondrasik's Web site, What Kind of World Do You Want?, which allows individuals and organizations to create and upload videos linked to a specific cause. Each time someone watches a video, a designated donor contributes funds to a related charity.
Ondrasik, a member of the band Five for Fighting, and TriWest already were well acquainted. In 2007, TriWest sponsored “For the Troops,” a compilation album the band distributed free to military personnel in the United States and overseas. As a result, when Ward discussed her goal with Ondrasik, he suggested that she create a video based on Five for Fighting's song "Freedom Never Cries."
Ward then worked with TriWest’s two-person video team to develop a concept and storyboard for the video. TriWest budgeted $37,000 for video production.
The video would mirror the song: a man brings an American flag to a pawnshop to get money for a guitar before reconsidering his decision. She then pitched, and later fine-tuned, the concept with Ondrasik and David McIntyre Jr., TriWest's president and chief executive officer.
Ward then set about crafting the e-mail message to accompany a link to the video. The copy, which was only four sentences, went through five drafts.
"We had a clear objective," says Ward, "We wanted to say, 'Check out this video and a dollar will be donated.' But brevity is difficult and everyone wanted to add something."
Rather than allow the message to be clouded with extra words, Ward put her foot down. She listened to the details that others wanted to add and boiled them down to a word or two.
"I told everyone, 'For this to be successful it needs to be short—the shorter and more direct the better,'" she says. "Then I showed them examples of effective campaigns."
Orchestrating the model
Early on, Ward and her colleagues realized that they had to map out a campaign strategy. They decided on a three-part plan.
They first focused on the grassroots level. On March 11, they sent the e-mail with the video link to a list of 300 employees, supporters and personal and professional contacts. They hoped the video would receive 30,000 views, which would translate into $30,000 for Operation Homefront. Within 20 days they surpassed their goal.
The key, says Ward, was crafting a persuasive e-mail.
"We've all been e-mailed notes with a link and we tend to delete them," she says. "That was our concern. We tried to avoid that. So even after we fine-tuned the note's content, we then focused on developing a compelling subject line."
They settled on, "Check out this video and support the troops."
The second phase of TriWest's strategy involved reaching out to military channels.
"There is a whole community of bloggers—military families at home, service members who are overseas, and military who are home—who are posting diverse content about their experiences and about the military itself on their sites," Ward notes.
After receiving TriWest's e-mail, many of the bloggers embedded the video on their sites or posted the link.
In the campaign's third phase, TriWest sent out a press release to mass media outlets with a military focus, such as the Military Times newspaper, DefenseLink.mil and the Pentagon Channel. But unlike in the past, the press release highlighted the launch of the viral video.
Each campaign phase added hundreds of thousands of viewers. Today the count is approaching 1 million views.
But since the launch was nearly a year ago, Ward's challenge has been to maintain momentum.
"We're looking at various ways to tag on to other social media outlets, such as blogging and setting up a Facebook page," she says. "The viral e-mail was just a start."
Six tips for launching a successful viral video campaign
1. Determine your target audience. To get your message out, you first have to determine who will be interested in it.
2. Identify where your audience is looking for news. "For us, we knew that they were primarily reading blogs and e-mails to stay in touch—so that's where we had to reach them," says Ward.
3. Develop a key message or objective. Work with your colleagues to brainstorm the main goals that you're trying to achieve.
4. Boil down that objective into a sentence or two. "Don't bog down what you're trying to stay with extraneous detail," says Ward. "Develop one key message and home in on that message."
5. Organize the campaign into phases. Make a plan that seeks to gradually expand exposure, starting from the grassroots level and moving to a nationwide rollout.
6. Follow through on your plan. Send your initial e-mail. Then, let your audience take over before heading into the next phases of the campaign.
Mark Buzan is Principal and Chief Magnifier in Action Strategies, a full service Strategic Communications, Public Relations and Public Affairs Consultancy for non-profits and associations. Make sure to contact him for advice on reaching audiences you may or may not have yet considered in your marketing communications and PR campaigns. Drop him a line if you are looking for help in developing a public relations campaign. You can view his website at www.actionstrategies.ca.