Stealth campaign yields results for renamed company
The cryptic messages were everywhere for two weeks in May. Newspapers, TV, postcards, anonymous e-mails, all posing the same question: “Hello, is anybody out there?”–with no answer, no brand, no clue as to what it meant.
The buzz was considerable, helped by the campaign’s intense air of secrecy. A handful of people engineered the campaign; the rest of us were left to wonder: Is it a message from aliens? Publicity for a new movie? An ode to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb?”
All was revealed May 17 with an integrated campaign that simply replied, “Yes,” and featured the humans behind 2-year-old Internet guide service MiningCo.com, which used the effort to introduce its new name, About.com.
The complete $12 million campaign, operating under the code name Project Hola, was a joint effort by About.com, integrated communications agency Frankfurt Balkind Partners, Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners, guerrilla marketing firm Eisnor Interactive and public relations agency Cone Interactive, all New York.
But even as the campaign has started its slow fade from advertising consciousness, the tale has never really been told of how they pulled it off, in an industry prone to gossip and bent on free exchange of information. Herewith, the story of how the companies managed to combine the ubiquity of any major ad campaign with the secrecy of a CIA mission.
OUT OF THEIR MINE
MiningCo.com had been considering a name change for a while when it decided to put some of the $80 million raised in its second quarter IPO toward rebranding, explained John Caplan, senior vice president of marketing.
Frankfurt Balkind conducted research. “Consumers said the Internet has a lot of stuff out there and it’s hard for me to find the relevance,” Caplan says.
“Our humanity makes using the Internet simpler,” he says of the service, and the firm decided to “rebrand the site as 700-plus destination sites–high-quality niches created by guides.”
In addition, the existing name did not resonate with consumers, the study found. “The MiningCo. name, while distinctive, was confusing to the new people on the Web,” says Aubrey Balkind, CEO of Frankfurt Balkind.
He adds, “The new plan was to really appeal to the broad mass of people on the Web, as opposed to the bleeding edge.”
THERE’S AN IDEA IN MY SOUP
Following the initial consumer work and the creation of a new name and logo by Frankfurt Balkind, About.com brought the other agencies on board to form what Caplan termed a “creative soup,” all designed to convey the message that About.com provides humanity on the Web.
A key concern for About.com was capturing the attention of different audiences, including consumer and trade magazines, the financial community, plus its own guides, employees and advertisers. In order to make the surprise effective, representatives from each agency met covertly on weekend mornings over bagels to plan strategy. Only a few senior level MiningCo. employees even knew about the name change. Project Hola was born.
“We made the decision in stealth and developed a strategy where we would raise the issue,” Caplan recalls. “‘Hello, is anybody out there?’ asked the consumer question: ‘Where is the information I’m looking for? Where is the person to help me find it? Where is the community I’m interested in?'”
It was that feeling of being lost on the Internet that Margeotes hoped to capture. “A lot of people think it’s kind of depressing and lonely and bleak out there in cyberland,” notes Graham Turner, managing partner and creative director at Margeotes.
By highlighting the existing features of the service, not just the name change, the agency hoped to keep its loyal user base. Kirsten Miller, account planner at Margeotes, says, “[Users] said, ‘As long as it still offers the same service, I don’t care what it’s called.'”
For Eisnor, the goal was extending the message wherever it could get noticed. “What can we do that will make people stop and look … and take a second and just wonder what this is?” explains Sam Ewen, Eisnor’s general manager.
About.com also wanted to do something edgy, but not “irreverent” and “sophomoric,” as Caplan argues other campaigns for dot.coms have been. “We’re an intelligent, optimistic, friendly company, and our communication comes through that way.”
WHAT A TEASE
Margeotes created the teaser effort, which ran for two weeks on TV, including the finales of Frasier, ER and Everybody Loves Raymond and in print in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and San Jose Mercury News. The 15-second TV ads showed a single shot of an empty desert, followed by a voiceover asking the question. The full-page print ads were all white, with just the question in black letters.
Margeotes also built a Web site, helloisanybodyoutthere.com, the URL having been bought under the name of Eisnor’s Ewen. Visitors were asked to enter their e-mail addresses.
Eisnor got to work blanketing the streets of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco with “Hello” posters and stickers and other way out-of-the-box methods. The company projected the question on buildings, spray-painted it on sidewalks, and even hired people to wear “Hello ” signs and T-shirts in train stations and movie theaters. Anonymous e-mails containing the question arrived in mailboxes of people in the industry, and postcards were distributed to them as well as all 700 MiningCo.com guides. The company even had a woman leave the question on the voicemails of some online industry executives.
For the May 17 launch of the renamed company, so-called “reveal” spots introducing the guides ran during Chicago Hope, Law and Order, Late Show with David Letterman and other high-profile shows, and across cable networks including CNN, Comedy Central and MSNBC. To convey the down-to-earth theme, About.com guides were shown in the same desert, introduced with the tagline, “We are About.com. Nice to meet you.” Three-page inserts appeared in the Times, Journal and Mercury News. Banners and pop-up ads launched online.
But, in keeping with the need for secrecy, the media weren’t clued in on who was buying the ads. All of the media buys were made under the mysterious corporate name Hola Industries. And, in the particularly notable case of About.com’s purchases on Yahoo!, the company was able to get away with a buy they couldn’t have made otherwise. As the MiningCo., the site was viewed as a competitor to which Yahoo! would not sell space.
Frankfurt Balkind redesigned all of the wording and logos on different sections of the existing MiningCo. site to reflect the launch of About.com. Cone Interactive supported the launch with media releases highlighting aspects of the campaign.
The stealth tactic worked. At the MiningCo. office, guides posted messages on the internal bulletin board wondering who was behind the mysterious question.
Ewen recalls that one woman’s reaction to receiving a voicemail sparked a conversation about who had seen the posters and other media. “It served its purpose because we got the entire marketing department of an agency talking about it,” he says.
Unplanned coverage was added when hired hitchhikers wearing “Hello, is anybody out there?” signs on the Golden Gate Bridge slowed traffic and were unexpectedly mentioned on traffic reports. The Web site received a half-million visits in two weeks.
Caplan notes that the risk of a name change is losing traffic, but Media Metrix statistics for that month showed the site was holding steady, and internal estimates show an increase in unique users and page views.
Jackie Blum, account director at Margeotes, adds that each agency brought its own expertise to create a unified feeling. The “Hello ” concept was “simple yet unique, a good, clear, defining vision,” she says.
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