August 27, 2008, 12:00 AM

Columbia gets more buzz for its buck with social marketing campaign

The apparel manufacturer generated 15,000 visits to a contest this spring by spreading the word through online fishing forums, sweepstakes sites and video sites. The company spent no money on advertising.

Columbia Sportswear Company learned two things from an online contest it sponsored this spring: you can drive traffic from online forums and other sites without spending ad dollars, and that more consumers will enter a contest if it doesn’t require a lot of work.

The Reel Stories contest featured George Poveromo, a well-known saltwater fisherman with a show on TV sports channel ESPN2, and four videos of fishing stories-three true stories and one that was a lie. Anyone who correctly identified the tall tale was entered into a drawing with a grand prize of a fishing trip with Poveromo.

The aim of the campaign was to engage saltwater fishermen and to raise awareness of a new line of sun-protective Columbia apparel called Omni-Shade, which was worn by the fishermen in the videos, says Natalie McDonald, Columbia’s advertising manager. Columbia does not sell through its site-that’s coming in the second half of 2009-but does point visitors to stores that sell Columbia apparel. So the impact of the campaign was measured by brand engagement metrics, not sales, McDonald says.

Columbia is focusing its advertising spend on broad brand marketing and did not want to divert ad dollars to a specialized audience. Instead, White Horse, which handles online marketing for Columbia, raised awareness of the contest by posting the fish-tale videos to 20 video sites, informing online sweepstakes sites of the contest so they could link to it, and, most effectively, by getting out the word on online forums frequented by fishing enthusiasts. “We had one of our people go to the sites we identified and with full transparency said, ‘This is Columbia Sportswear, we have this promotion that we think would interest you, here’s a link,’” says Eric Anderson, director of marketing at White Horse. In all, 123 web sites accepted links to the contest.

Those links generated 75% of the 14,964 visits to the contest page, with the rest coming from promotions on Columbia’s web site and e-mails to its customers. 38% of those who came entered the contest, roughly double the 15-20% conversion rate White Horse typically expects from contests, Anderson says. Of the 5,680 visitors who entered, 2,032, or 36%, left checked the box that opts them in to receiving e-mails from Columbia, adding to the company’s e-mail marketing list.

The results compared favorably to a promotion dubbed Tough Tester that Columbia ran last fall in which its spent $189, 170 in advertising and generated 57,781 visits, but only received 3,138 contest entries. Anderson believes more visitors entered the Reel Stories contest because it only required watching four 2-minute videos, whereas the Tough Tester promotion asked entrants to write a story about how they had put Columbia apparel to the test. “There is a tradeoff,” Anderson says. “When you ask users to produce content you won’t see that high of a response rate.”

McDonald says promoting the Reel Stories contest through social marketing was a cost-effective way to reach a niche audience, an approach Columbia is likely to use again. “While we’ll always be running a broad campaign to reach a broader audience, this is something we’d look to do to reach out to more vertical categories and more seasonal categories,” she says.

The Reel Stories contest also showed something else: it’s not easy to tell when a fisherman is lying. The video that was a lie was guessed least by contest entrants.

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