Viral Marketing: Can Dancing Elves Move Product Off Shelves?

If you recognized this was NOT an official OfficeMax Elf Yourself video, perhaps you’re one of the 26.4 million people who took part in the real OfficeMax viral campaign last Christmas. (For our non-US readers, you can read up on this campaign here).

There’s no denying that this was the biggest social media marketing success for a major retailer in 2007. Hitwise ranked ElfYourself.com as the 51st most visited website in December, and users spent a total of 2,600 years on the site. Even more remarkable, 40% of visitors to ElfYourself.com were 55 years or older – proving that social media campaigns can engage boomers successfully.

OfficeMax VP of Marketing and Advertising Bob Thacker said: “We were looking to build the brand, warm up our image. We weren’t looking for sales. We are third-place players in our industry, so we are trying to differentiate ourselves through humor and humanization.”

“Of the 20 most common search terms in the four weeks of December, six of them included the words “Office Max,” indicating that brand awareness had carried through,” said Heather Dougherty of Hitwise.

Traffic is great. But many people question whether viral marketing has an ROI. One comment on a recent Advertising Age article read:

The total number of users of Elfyourself (sic) is indeed astounding but several key points raise concern from a marketing standpoint. Bob Thacker stated the intent was to build brand awareness and they were not looking for sales. Bummer. Shouldn’t this be the point and don’t the two go hand-in-hand? So what if 26.4 million used the freebie, where did they go with their wallets during this time period? Office Max failed to capitalize on one of the peak buying periods. This should have been a vehicle to get people into their stores. Aspects of this can be incorporated into good, sound marketing and this is where the advertising tie-in can assist. Otherwise what’s the point? –Boise, ID

I disagree. Brand awareness is extremely valuable and important, especially in OfficeMax’ competitive industry. It might not result in immediate sales, but it should impact long term market position. Social media marketing (including blogging, podcasting and interactive viral campaigns) is a long-term strategy. It’s not a newspaper circular, it’s not PPC advertising, it’s not email marketing. Like celebrity endorsement or a Super Bowl ad, it won’t necessarily drive sales during a specific time period.

Think of who OfficeMax is competing with. Los Angeles is home to the Staples Center. Every time someone watches a Lakers or a Kings game – even on television, they’re exposed to the Staples brand. And Staples is often referred to in episodes of “The Office” as a rival company – another form of advertising that is not cheap. Both these methods of marketing don’t result in immediate sales and it’s difficult to measure ROI. Staples even mixes celebrity with nostalgia:

Uh, I’m pretty sure Alice did say school was out forever.

But brand awareness and brand preference are not the same thing. From the AdAge comments:

It was an amazing viral campaign, I can’t recall how many emails from people who “elf-ed themselves”, still it did not make me want to choose Office Max over Staples. I’m still waiting to see how the brand awareness concept for #3 OM helps its quest to be more people friendly. –Fredonia, NY

OfficeMax still has work to do this year to maintain momentum. The challenge now will be to gauge if brand perceptions have changed, and if the online and in-store customer experience can live up to the image OfficeMax desires.


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