An Experian report on the impact of social networks predicts that 2008 will see the rise of ‘super advocates’ who will have the power to make or break a brand’s reputation through their networks.
Reach Students has already worked with what could be called super advocates, using Facebook back in 2006.
Here, I am detailing how we worked and what we achieved – partly to address the notion that you can’t run successful marketing campaigns through Facebook (a conclusion that some drew after reading our experiences of poor Facebook ad clickthrough).
In November 2006, we were called in by top theatre company Cameron Mackintosh to promote Avenue Q, an award-winning US musical. The show had premiered in London’s West-End during the summer, but was failing to find its audience.
Awareness of ‘Q’, a big comedy hit in the US, had not spread across the Atlantic and the usual schedule of offline promotion had failed to capture significant interest in the UK. The prognosis wasn’t good - ticket bookings were only being taken until January 2007 and, if things didn’t improve, Avenue Q London would be pulled in the new year.
The risqué, street-smart nature of the show, with its jokes about porn and racism, lends itself well to the UK student audience. Not only that, but the central theme of Avenue Q – a bright-eyed graduate lands in New York and begins a journey of self-discovery – has obvious relevance to them.
The problem for the show’s promoters was that UK students are not – generally – big theatre go-ers. Students were also an entirely new core audience for them to speak to. Normally the theatre marketers talked to students’ parents and grandparents about the likes of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.
Cameron Mackintosh had no idea where, when and how to find the audience that could make their show big in Britain, and what’s more, they had no idea how to pitch it to them either.
We felt sure that the show would be hugely popular with students, if only they knew what it was all about. We were well aware that at that time, before Facebook opened its gates to all, around 80% of the UK’s student population was connected through Facebook. We had already begun using the network with experimental initiatives and could see there was massive opportunity.
We pitched to Cameron Mackintosh the idea of using Facebook advocates to promote the show. After some explanation of Facebook and our precise methods, they said yes.
Here’s what we did.
We spent some considerable time trawling profiles on the London network in search of potential student advocates. We were looking for individuals who a) had lots of friends to spread the word to; and b) had interests that suggested they would particularly enjoy the show. We also looked for students who were involved in their students’ union or student media – a likely sign that their social circle or influence was bigger than average.
We picked just six students in total, from four of the capital’s top universities. They each had around 500 friends. We invited them to go and see the show for free and take some friends – there were no strings attached, except that we asked them to join an Avenue Q London group that we had set up and populated with information, videos and pictures from the show.
Inevitably the advocates all loved Avenue Q and wanted to tell fellow students about it. Everyone likes to recommend good things to others: it provides kudos and encourages kinship through shared experience. This is part of the viral equation.
The friends that advocates took to the show also joined the group. They’d had a great night out and were immediate fans.
As any Facebook user will know, activities such as joining a group or posting a comment on a wall tend to appear in user newsfeed. Which means that all a user’s friends get to see what they have been publicly doing on Facebook. The act of just one advocate joining the group created newsfeed messages in over 500 friends’ accounts. Another message goes out when they post a comment or start a discussion.
Consider that, already in this promotion, six advocates have reached over 3,000 friends – most of them fellow students on the London network – with the message that Avenue Q is something special.
Then there are their guests: because they joined the group too, word started filtering through their networks, many of which interlink with the advocates’, strengthening the message.
Through this activity we picked up other individuals who had seen the show, or perhaps heard of it and really liked the idea of it. They also joined the group to wear the ‘Avenue Q London’ badge.
After only a few days there were around a hundred members.
With this foundation of activity we had something to build on.
So we launched a very straightforward competition and posted details to the group of a hundred. The prize was a VIP night out at the show, with dinner, champagne and a meet-the-cast opportunity. To win, members simply had to post a ‘nominate me’ request in the group’s discussion forum and then get their friends to vote for them.
This mechanism had power: it saw a friend going to another friend to ask a favour. They needed help to achieve something they really wanted. The prize of Avenue Q tickets had strong desirability.
To nominate their friends, Facebook users had to post a message on their friends’ thread. The act of doing this creates a newsfeed message which is sent through that friend’s network: John Smith has discussed Avenue Q London.
The friend who sees this thinks: ‘John is discussing what? I better go and take a look’.
To post nominations, friends also had to join the group. John Smith has joined the group Avenue Q London. Another newsfeed message.
You can see how, through newsfeed, the buzz about Avenue Q begins to spread. As the group reached out across the network, more previously silent fans of the show found it and began using the group to show their enthusiasm. Wall posts were made, new discussions were started, pictures went up in the photo file of various cast members with the groupies who had caught them outside for autographs and chats.
The group had come to life – in a matter of days it had over 480 members. And each one had propagated numerous Avenue Q messages through their newsfeed to friends. The student who won the competition had managed to get 140 friends to nominate her.
When we finished off this work in early January 2007, we totted up the impact the campaign had made through Facebook. We had to work on averages, due to the impracticality of collating the totals of hundreds of friends networks.
If our group members had an average 200 friends (a conservative average when you look specifically at students at the target universities) then we calculated:
• By the end of December, over 97,500 pages were served up with the message: eg John Smith has joined the Avenue Q London group
• Over 71,000 pages were served up with the message: eg John Smith discussed the Avenue Q London competition
• Over 5,000 pages were served up with the message eg John Smith has written on the Avenue Q London group wall
• Over a four week period around 250,000 Avenue Q related statements had appeared in individuals’ newsfeed.
The theatre had no method in place to track, in any detail, the direct effect on the box office. But it was clear that there had been a massive one (not entirely down to this work, since some useful PR had been achieved in the mainstream media). The show was suddenly on the up, with tickets flying out of the box office and a buzz circulating around town and beyond. In January it was decided it should be kept on.
Avenue Q London hasn’t looked back ever since. A year later it’s more popular than ever and many of those who saw it the first time have gone back. The Facebook group is still there, managing itself through its group members – now 1000+ of them - who continue to enthuse about Avenue Q, post pictures and discuss cast changes.
This was a piece of marketing activity that worked beautifully at that time. But Facebook is an evolving social environment, and many changes have happened since then. Notably, newsfeed was a huge focus of user attention at that time. In the months that followed, particularly with the birth of applications, the power of newsfeed has probably diminished, through clutter and through more active customisation of settings. Still, we are confident that its potential remains better – much better – than the dreadful Facebook flyer, RIP.