Office-supply companies aren't known for their holiday products and cheer. So when OfficeMax asked our agency to create its first-ever holiday campaign, it looked like a daunting task. How could we persuade people to shop for gifts there? With a limited budget and only a few weeks to plan and launch the campaign, we knew TV spots hawking digital cameras were out of the question. Instead, we felt that if we were asking people to buy gifts from OfficeMax, we should start by giving out something ourselves.
Therefore, we decided to devote our media budget and creative efforts to developing the online digital content, in hopes that the content would be appealing enough to go viral.
Yup, we put the entire media budget into production of viral content: 20 holiday-themed Web sites, including "Elf yourself," which allowed users to superimpose their own head shots over a dancing elf. All 20 sites were linked together under a single yellow OfficeMax roll-over tab.
The results: In just five weeks, more than 40 million people visited the sites, which collectively grossed more than half a billion hits and generated over 330 million brand minutes. That means between Thanksgiving and Christmas, people spent the equivalent of 642 years engaged with OfficeMax.
Launching a campaign solely in hopes that it will go viral is a risky strategy, but OfficeMax and its executives, including Bob Thacker, executive vice president of marketing, and Mark Andeer, vice president of brand strategy, were game. They knew that getting attention during the holiday season - for an office-supply store no less - required something out of the ordinary.
They came to Toy and asked for a creative solution that would let OfficeMax own the holiday season, in a fresh and engaging way. They also wanted advertising that was content-driven, not purely self-promotional. That's a challenge that defines why we're in business, so of course we said yes.
From the start, as a team we had to be united on campaign objectives. We agreed that one goal was to associate OfficeMax with the holidays in a fun, inventive way, and drive traffic to the OfficeMax home page where customers would hopefully be making purchases. To this end, we created 20 microsites that would let consumers personalize and share holiday mementos, and designed the rollover tab at the bottom of each microsite that would bring viewers to the OfficeMax home page. Each week, that tab featured a product that would entice people to visit the home page.
Once we firmed up our campaign goals and site designs, we tackled the hard, contradictory question of how to plan a viral campaign - which, by definition, does not lend itself to planning. Another challenge stemmed from the campaign's short life; its duration was only five weeks from launch to the end of the year.
Additionally, this initiative couldn't go underground; rather, it had to be overtly branded so we could drive traffic to OfficeMax. The campaign also faced the usual holiday clutter, occurring at a time when consumers were inundated with messages everywhere they turned.
We hoped that one way to overcome these hurdles would come from Web-based reporters and bloggers. If they came to the sites, they could generate early buzz for the campaign, enabling it to break through the holiday ad clutter and gain momentum that would spill into the mainstream press.
The campaign was discussed in a New York Times piece the week of its launch; bloggers picked up the article immediately, and the snowball began to roll. Consumers started creating "TV Anchor" elves on the "Elf Yourself" microsite. With 20 microsites in the campaign, there was content for every kind of outlet in the blogosphere. Cooking blogs liked "Roast a Turkey" and - somewhat ironically - hunters seemed to have a fondness for "Arm-Wrestling Reindeer."
In the end, the campaign took off because consumers responded to the content that they could personalize and share. We knew we'd have to entertain first, sell second. The reality is that instant engagement is the only success formula for advertising and the Web. The consumer has the mouse, so if you don't grab them instantly, you're history.
Creating 20 sites also allowed us to reach a wide and varied online audience. The marketing target was adults 25 and older; therefore, the campaign had to appeal to 20-somethings and baby boomers alike. A few sites ended up generating cult-like followings, like Roast a Turkey and Guess My Gift, while others had more universal appeal, like Elf Yourself and North Pole Dancing.
As often happens with viral content, one site became a breakout hit. This was the case with Elf Yourself. At its peak, the site was receiving 200 hits per second and became the 267th most visited site on the Web (according to Alexa rankings). It was featured on "Good Morning America", CNN, VH1's "Best Week Ever," USA Today's Pop Candy blog and many others, and was ranked No. 2 on Entertainment Weekly's Must List. The site had over 35 million visitors, and more than 10 million elves were created in the five-week period. It was a pop culture phenomenon. Even sports teams were calling, asking for their mascots to be "elfed." And users were creating their own movie versions featuring our characters.
The sites ended up generating unprecedented response and exceeded the client's and our own expectations, surpassing all previous viral efforts over such a short time frame. As an aside, three server upgrades were required just to keep pace with its success.
This was all achieved without any paid media. In fact, we estimate that if we wanted to get the same kind of time and exposure on television, we would have had to spend 10 to 15 times as much - and it wouldn't have been time so closely engaged with the brand, nor would consumers have likely felt such a personal connection to the campaign or the brand.
Importantly, this holiday campaign became a point of pride for the people working at OfficeMax as well. From the very start, they had helped develop the sites, and they reaped thanks and admiration from friends and families who had been entertained by their efforts for a few minutes during the crazy holiday period. It became a pop culture phenomenon by, in part, playing into the human desire for that 15 minutes of fame.