Cross-Media Case Study: Breaking The M-Word Taboo

In the wild world of Internet dating and personals sites, a category ranging from Christian Singles.com to GorgeousGrannies.com, there are virtually no taboos.

"The first thing I noticed when we were hired by eHarmony," recalls Lucas Donat, CEO of Santa Monica, Calif.-based agency Donat Wald, "was that most online dating advertisers were absolutely freaked out about one thing, using the 'm word,' marriage. The conventional wisdom was if you wanted to get singles to your site, you better avoid that word at all costs."

Fortunately, Donat explains, eHarmony founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren not only encouraged, but demanded that his company's advertising break the "m word" taboo.

"Dr. Warren saw what eHarmony was doing as completely unique in the online dating space in two fundamental ways," Donat says. "First, it was for people serious about finding a relationship rather than just a date. Second, its selection process was far more rigorous. Before they'd even take your money they made prospective members take a long, 436-item questionnaire about all aspects of their personality. It wasn't just posting a photo and a paragraph," he explains.

In mid-2003 when eHarmony and Donat Wald hooked up to create a strategy for proving its heretical concept in the marketplace, they faced no small challenge. Formed in 2000, eHarmony spent almost three years struggling as an also-ran in a marketplace dominated by bigger rivals like Match.com and Yahoo! Personals. "We both knew that the key to reversing eHarmony's fortunes was to boldly emphasize how we were different," Donat says. "Our message was 'go to the other sites if you want to play the dating game. But when you're really serious about finding someone special eHarmony is the only place to go.'"

Donat Wald developed a two-pronged campaign designed to use TV and radio to generate wide brand awareness, and followed it with targeted online support to attract new members.

Real Life Harmony

The brand awareness component of the campaign involved testimonials featuring real-life couples who met through eHarmony.

"We decided that the couples who'd met and gotten together through eHarmony were our real message," explains eHarmony marketing executive Suzanne Nagel. "So with TV and radio our goal was to find compelling ways of highlighting their stories."

In mid 2003, eHarmony debuted its first testimonial TV and radio spot showing a young couple talking about their first telephone conversation. It was followed by a series of six spots in which different couples told stories about their first dates and courtship in a cinema verite style. A third series of six spots followed, unabashedly touting eHarmony's track record in achieving marriages and how it differed from other online dating services.

One spot entitled "Mosaic," offers glimpses in rapid succession of 16 recently married couples who met at eHarmony. Each couple is dressed in wedding attire and dancing to the romantic 1975 Natalie Cole hit song, "This Will Be (Everlasting Love)." As they dance, the voice of Dr. Warren is heard saying, "There's a reason so many eHarmony matches result in marriage. At eHarmony we match you based on the deep dimensions of compatibility essential to a lasting relationship. If you've tried dating sites and still haven't found the love of your life give eHarmony a try."

Another spot called "A Better Way" features interviews with two couples who've successfully used the site talking about eHarmony's advantages over the "meat market" pressures encountered at other sites. "With eHarmony," one young man says, "the matching process didn't put any stress on me." It wasn't about trying to be competitive with other people," says his wife.

The spots ran on cable TV networks popular with single men and women, especially those 25 to 44, and on national radio networks.

"We used TV and radio to generate trust and credibility," Donat says. "TV, in particular, is a feeling medium. You can see the couples and the looks of love they have for each other."

If traditional media played a pivotal role in getting the name and unique message of the brand out there, then online media was crucial for transforming awareness into action and paid subscribers. "What online can do," Donat explains, "is help jog the memory of people who've seen or heard the ads. It reinforces the associations they've started to form or at its best, makes them say, 'Oh yeah I've been thinking about trying that. Maybe now is the time to do something about it.'"

Online Action

After experimenting with full page and banner ads on portals, eHarmony began to focus the majority of its online advertising on a more direct route to return on investment.

"One of the ironies of online advertising for us is that it's not the big, fancy rich media approaches that are working for us," Nagle says. "The killer app turns out to be simple text ads placed at precise locations. People searching online already have a level of seriousness. They are predisposed to pay attention to relevant calls to action. If they already know who you are and a little bit about you, they're likely to be predisposed to go to your site and fill out that personality profile," she concludes.

The site partnered with Google and other search engines to place text and banner ads based on keyword search criteria targeting. For example, ads targeted searchers using keywords or phrases like "harmony."

The messages were succinct: eHarmony... more marriages per match than any other online service," and "eHarmony... try us when you're ready to find the love of your life." The site also pursued partnerships with online publishers for sponsorships of branded personals listings. Last year, eHarmony partnered with Gannett newspapers, including USA Today, to sponsor online personals on all the chain's Web sites.

"We don't really care so much whether anybody thinks our ads are the coolest or cutting edge," Nagel says. "They're not there to impress the cognoscenti. We want to find the most direct way possible to translate brand awareness into subscribers. We are confident that once they reach us, our site will do the rest."

The numbers bear her out; eHarmony estimates that 70 percent of visitors to the site are generated by search ads. A whopping 24 percent of total visitors in 2004 became paid subscribers, a figure over three times the industry average. In the less than three years since national advertising began, eHarmony's subscriber base has grown from less than a million to nearly 6 million. The growth is all the more surprising considering its $50 subscription fee is more than double that of major rivals.

"What's most gratifying about this campaign," Donat says, "is that it shows that if you really have a message that's distinctive and you focus single-mindedly on it, you can totally buck the conventional wisdom."

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