October 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

In The Pink

A lighthearted contest built around social networks helped seriously raise brand awareness for an online travel site.

It was early 2009, the economy was in a free-fall, and Jessica Kornacki knew getting a big budget for a new idea wasn’t an option.

Instead, Kornacki requested a very small budget-little more than enough to buy a couple of dozen pink sweatshirts and $1,000 for search engine marketing-and set about to test how promoting a contest through social networks could increase awareness of online vacation rental site EVRentals.com.

The results exceeded expectations, says Kornacki, vice president of marketing for Endless Vacation Rentals, part of hotel and vacation property company Wyndham Worldwide. “The increased traffic and conversion from branded keywords, how folks were talking about us in the social media channel, it was all very pleasantly surprising to us,” she says.

The promotion illustrates how a fun idea and an energetic staff can get consumers talking online about a brand-especially when that brand listens as well as speaks. It’s a lesson that can apply equally to online retailers.

The goal was to raise the profile of Endless Vacation Rentals, which was established in 2007. The travel company and its online marketing agency, iProspect, came up with an idea suited to the recessionary times: asking consumers to submit their funniest bad luck stories for a chance to win a week-long vacation for four worth up to $2,500 and a $2,000 Visa gift card.

The contest was called “Turn Your Luck Around,” and was built around a microsite called YourFatChance.com that featured a happy pink hippo called Fat Chance. Consumers could do five things at the site: submit hard luck stories, post shorter instant-win submissions, create “Send Some Lucky Lovin” e-mails that they could customize with their own photo superimposed on the pink hippo, vote on submissions and sign up for e-mail offers.

Endless Vacation Rentals launched the promotion at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan in March. About two dozen staffers donned pink sweatshirts emblazoned with YourFatChance.com and pink party hats and mingled with the crowd, giving out scratch cards that offered winners $50 to $100 off vacations, and Mardi Gras beads with the YourFatChance.com URL.

Staffers took videos that were uploaded the same day to a YouTube channel created for the promotion. Personnel from iProspect optimized each video for YouTube with search-friendly titles, tags and descriptions. For instance, staffers titled one video Your Fat Chance: Cathleen’s Bad Luck Story, entered in the description field “Check out Cathleen’s story of bad luck. Then submit your own at www.yourfatchance.com,” gave it the file name win-a-vacation- Cathleen.MOV, and tagged it with such terms as “win a vacation,” “sweepstakes,” “vacation” and “your fat chance.”

Creating a separate YouTube channel for the contest put all contest-related video in one spot.

Press releases issued throughout the promotion included key search terms, such as “vacation contest,” “Your Fat Chance” and “Endless Vacation Rentals,” making it more likely the press releases would show up in natural search results for those terms.

Reaching out

Once the promotion was underway, Endless Vacation and iProspect did not just wait for consumers to find their way to the contest: Staffers used Facebook, Twitter and other online communities to engage consumers around themes like vacations and bad luck.

“We didn’t just want to tweet about our brand and our contest,” says Heather Pidgeon, client services director at iProspect. “We talked about funny and odd stories that were happening. A man crosses the Atlantic in a Dixie cup: Fat chance that could happen.

“We also replied to people who were tweeting about their own hard luck. We replied, ‘Sorry, you had a bad day. Why don’t you enter our contest? It’s about turning your luck around.’” They also followed discussions on bridal and wedding web sites, where funny or embarrassing stories often turn up, and joined those discussions, working in a mention of the contest. Kornacki estimates such outreach efforts took two to three hours a week of one staffer’s time.

By reaching out in this way, the contest promoters engaged consumers on issues they’re interested in, an effective way to use social media, says Bob Pearson, former vice president of Communities and Conversations at computer maker Dell Inc. Pearson is president of the Social Media Business Council, where large companies share social media learnings, and works with the Weisscomm Group consulting firm.

Companies too often focus on how well they are getting their own message across, which Pearson calls “share of voice,” rather than on how effectively they are joining in the discussions consumers are having online, which he calls “share of conversation.”

“By asking for stories and getting into bigger topics they went beyond their own brand,” Pearson says. “It’s very powerful to do that. People like to talk about what’s important to them, not what’s important to the company-and then they’ll talk to the company as a result of that.”

Lots of stories

The focus from the St. Patrick’s Day launch until early May was on driving traffic to the Your Fat Chance web site and garnering hard luck story submissions. It was during this period that the promotion team spent its modest paid search budget, initially on terms like “parade” and “your fat chance contest,” and later on broader terms like “sweepstakes” and “contest.” And staffers posted videos of their own hard luck stories on the Your Fat Chance channel on YouTube.

In the end, 800 consumers submitted hard luck stories, and the promotion team selected the 25 most creative and humorous as finalists. The organizers contacted each finalist to get permission to post their story and photo on YourFatChance.com, and informed them that the grand prize would go to the finalist who gets the most votes.

That prompted contestants to campaign for votes among their friends, including via Facebook, Twitter and in online forums and blogs. “That’s really what we wanted,” Kornacki says. “Let users talk about us and let them drive this viral marketing through their channels of social media.”

Unique visitors to YourFatChance.com grew from 3,020 in March to 32,662 at its peak in June, according to web measurement firm Compete Inc. Total visits to YourFatChance.com hit 47,711 in June, iProspect says. Overall, the YourFatChance.com web site generated 57,867 submissions for instant-win contests, 8,000 e-mail opt-ins for Endless Vacation Rentals, 1,000 Send Some Lucky Lovin’ e-mails with the customized pink hippo mascot, and 15,742 votes on the 25 hard luck stories.

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