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 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 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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12 Responses to “Viral Marketing: Can Dancing Elves Move Product Off Shelves?”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I elfed myself and I even turned my husband, friend and I into m&m’s last night because I saw an ad on TV about making your own personalized m&m character. By going to the website for that I also found out about their Valentine’s day promotions and was exposed to more information about m&m’s than I’ve ever been before.

  2. Kevin says:

    Great minds think alike ;)
    Just posted about this on my blog this AM.

    You make excellent points. I’m just not convinced OfficeMax is getting anything out of this. Surely 2007 business performance didn’t indicate a lift.

    As you say, time will tell.

  3. i like that office max wants to differentiate themselves through personality and humor. office supplies are dull! i thought the campaign was hysterical. but, unlike the m&m one (which @rebecca mentions and I haven’t been there yet) when elfing yourself you go to the microsite, and there is an itsy bitsy office max logo on it. if you don’t notice it, there’s no indication the dancing elves have anything to do with office max. i agree with you — i think its definitely a long term strategy that will need to be constantly nurtured, and maybe develop some link to OM (dancing thumb tacks anyone?;)

  4. They should bring the elves in-store next year. Instead of getting your photo with Santa, come in and get your photo with the elves.

    Or an elf-babysitting service. Drop your kids off while you do your real Christmas shopping. The elves will keep them company and hey, buy some toner and postit notes while you’re at it?? Doesn’t IKEA do something like that all year round ;)

  5. Didn’t they let you send the thing to a friend (I unfortunately didn’t see the campaign when it was live)? If so, think about the amount of names they collected. The notification emails could contain branding, offers, etc. If they requested opt-in permission, the value of generating a list that large is substantial. Is it targeted? Probably not. But, with effective drip marketing they could filter a pretty qualified list out of it.

  6. This was a great campaign, however I have to say that I received an ElfYourself of me from a friend, and never knew what company it came from. It seems like I’m the exception to the rule though, given the high search volume for Office Max related terms over December. I would be really interested to analyse the long term impact of these kinds of campaign on sales/brand awareness.

  7. I don’t see how Office Max is really differentiating themselves here. As you point out, Linda, Staples is using humor too — even though Alice DOES say “school’s out fore-ev-uh” in the next line. (He can lie to his kid all he wants, but does he have to lie to us? Et tu, Alice?)

    Anyway, Staples has already beaten Office Max with dumb, simple stuff like the “easy button.” They mailed us one of those damn things with a shipment once. Now everyone who walks past it thinks they’re hilarious when they can just hit and — boom! — instant corporate mantra.

    “That was easy!”

    As far as I can tell, nobody (save for office managers who’ve been burned by one or the other in a clutch situation) really cares about — or understands — the differences between these two brands.

    Office Max is going to have to do better than “funny” if they want to be considered best of breed. That being said, what has Staples done other than beat them to the punch(line)?

  8. @ Robert,
    Excellent comments. Perhaps the real winner here is Toy, the marketing brains behind the campaign. They succeeded at making the viral very very popular. But they’re not responsible for sales or customer experience.

    Sending you a Staples easy button was a good move, hey? Now you have year-round branding in your office that people love. A marketer’s dream.

  9. Guys, never mind the brand and direct sales implications, this is search engine dynamite! The domain (which is linked to by nearly 30,000 other websites) links directly (and only) to the homepage. Conventional internet marketing dictates that this will have a huge impact on’s ability to rank in Google on competitive terms. I’d love to see their stats – I bet it’s a big win.

  10. DNA says:

    Agreed. I suspect this was dreamt up by an SEO person :)

  11. Kevin says:

    Interesting take on this by asbestos-dude. If anyone on this board had a subscription to Hitwise we could prove (instead of “bet”) whether OMX is getting more traffic than Staples or OfficeDepot when someone searches on “office supplies” or “post-it notes.”

  12. Great observation. Maybe someone will post that data :D

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