Long before Mark Zuckerberg was a gleam in his mother's eye, Weight Watchers was creating a business based on community building and peer-to-peer support - also the building blocks of social media. These days, the 48-year-old company still convinces people to pay to talk to each about their weight; it also sells them online-only memberships, digital tools and a game - the Points programs - to help them earn the prize of a thinner body. The whole socially oriented, content-heavy endeavor is promoted with a hefty ad budget - more than $120 million in the U.S. this year, per industry reports.
A good way to understand how the moving parts come together is in Weight Watchers' "It's a New Day" marketing campaign that started late last year. Revolving around Jennifer Hudson, the once-plump "American Idol" finalist-turned-A-List celeb, the cross-media campaign has the overt goal of introducing the brand's updated points system, called PointsPlus. (A point count is assigned to foods, beverages, even cocktails and a certain number of points is allowed each week. Exercise sessions increase your point allowance. The new version essentially cut the points for fresh produce and increased points for processed foods.)
With the marketing push, "we wanted to drive awareness of our big change [in the points formula] in a emotional, compelling way and to promote our meetings and fleet of online tracking tools," says Cheryl Callan, senior vice president of marketing at Weight Watchers. "People lose 50 percent more weight when they both attend meetings and use our e-tools as opposed to just one or the other. The more engaged with us they are, the more successful they are."
The campaign's deeper purpose is to make the brand feel more contemporary and hip. "We want to get beyond being the smart and the sensible brand, and be perceived as modern and with it," says Callan.
But wouldn't that mean they would emphasize online-only memberships (cost: $18 month) more than meetings (cost: $40 month)?
Don't jump to conclusions, Callan says. "We see the preference of meetings or online as a matter of attitude and behavior, not generational. Regardless of age, not everyone lives behind a computer," she adds.
Jumping Ahead of the Blitz
The new PointsPlus plan debuted via pr outreach in November, putting the brand in the media spotlight before Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem and other rivals revved up their regular post-holiday marketing engines. The news that more foods were point-free instantly generated a flood of social media buzz among Weight Watchers members and former members. ("I can eat as much fruit as I want? Cool.") Then on December 26, the company unveiled the first "It's a New Day " TV ad with Jennifer Hudson and placed it on various New Year's Eve countdown shows. A total of six TV spots by Weight Watchers' agency McCann Erickson were aired through early March. Hudson, posing in form-fitting outfits, dominated the brand's site, banner ads and magazine ads. "Jennifer, who's 29, reaches younger customers, but she is also seen as a regular person with broad appeal among those 35 and older," says Callan.
In addition to Hudson, the ads featured the weight loss stories of everyday members. One spot showed a young married couple and specifically promoted the company's online subscription plan. Print ads with members' testimonials also appeared in WeightWatchers magazine.
The campaign's social media effort was all about Facebook. A dedicated page was added to the brand's main Facebook page where Hudson's new songs and music videos debuted. Visitors would also find the latest TV spots, behind-the scenes video of the production of the commercials, photos and video of Hudson and promos by Weight Watchers' counselors, members and the official blogger. Paid subscribers got extras, such as Hudson's seven-day meal plan. As they browse the free content, visitors are also encouraged to click for access to fee-based tools and content and to sign up for memberships. Facebook was an obvious, "intuitive" fit for the campaign, extending the community elements of the brand's main site, says Callan. "On our site, people tend to segment themselves into groups, such as those who've lost more than 50 pounds," she continues. "In contrast, the brand's Facebook following is broader and more diverse, and includes those who are curious but know little about the company. On Facebook we can reach exponentially more people than on the site and we can identify different success stories than those on the site. Another plus is that we can let [uninitiated] people sample the brand's offerings, such as trying our recipes.
Research backs her up. Studies from BlogHER and iVillage found that women thought social networks like Facebook were best for keeping up with friends and family as well as entertainment. In contrast, online communities, such as those on the Weight Watchers Web site, were better at helping women find out about new products and make purchase decisions.
The results on Facebook were decisive. In mid-December, just before the campaign broke, the brand had more than 438,000 Facebook "likes." Two months later, it had attracted 579,700 likes, a 32 percent hike. In mid-January, fashion guru Tim Gunn of TV's "Project Runway" was hired to boost traffic to the brand's Web site. He offered members online style tips for the various stages of weight loss, consulted on the styles worn in the TV ads and discussed the thinking behind his TV advice. E-newsletters were sent to members alerting them to Gunn's involvement.
On the mobile front, the company launched a free iPad app - the Weight Watchers Kitchen Companion - about a week before the new campaign began. People can use the app to check the point count of food items while shopping or eating out, but the app's large color graphics were primarily meant to be used in the kitchen while cooking. An Android version is planned for the spring.
So far the brand's YouTube and Twitter efforts are lagging. A branded YouTube channel offers most of the same videos as on Facebook and weightwatchers.com; however, it has attracted only about 1,500 subscribers with 79,000 views. The brand's Twitter account has about 50,000 followers, one-tenth the audience of its Facebook page. "In 2011 we will figure out the best ways to use Twitter and YouTube," promises Callan. Twitter seems useful for promoting big events, for instance. "And YouTube seems to be the way that many members chronicle their progress," by posting before, during and after videos of themselves, says Callan.
But the $120 million question is whether marketing a hipper image will drive people to sign up for weekly in-person meetings, where the company makes most of its money. Don't be surprised if the members know the answer before the company does. According to the latest earnings report, about 6.9 million people attended meetings in Q4 of 2010, and their dues and fees brought in about $164 million. In comparison, more than 1 million online members brought in less than half that revenue - about $62.4 million - in the same period.
But growth patterns are the real story. Online revenue and online memberships grew a hefty 30 to 40 percent in Q4. However, meeting attendance grew only 6.8 percent and meetings revenue grew 15 percent in Q4.
For the venerable brand, it's possible that online support sessions, Facebook banter and homemade YouTube videos may become the community builders of its future. Like the campaign says, "It's a New Day"- as much for the company as for its overweight, digital, DIY-minded customers.