Beauty Contest: Sephora’s Holiday Push

NEW YORK “Are you an in girl?” With those e-mailed words last November, Sephora launched a lead-generating program targeting brand enthusiasts. The beauty retailer, which says the effort gave it valuable insight into its most ardent consumers, has decided to go viral again. Its next campaign, set to launch this holiday season, will leverage the insights gained from that effort to inform its holiday promotion for “Beauty Insider,” a long-term rewards program.

The lessons “In girl” taught LVMH-owned Sephora, which opened its first U.S. stores in 1998—were threefold. The company says the first was that its viral campaign provided a stronger rate of return than its banners and other e-marketing efforts. The second: personalization matters. And the third is that a small percentage of its audience was able to recruit a sizeable chunk of the effort’s traffic.

The point of the interactive campaign was for girls to get their friends to nominate them as “in girls,” who would then receive free products to critique. To start, the campaign was seeded by contacting Sephora’s existing customer base, “who then used their social networks to attract new participants,” says Chris Boni, senior director of marketing and products at PopularMedia, the San Francisco-based company that created the effort,

Girls received electronic cards showing a model pursing her lips and the headline, “Are you an in girl?” After forwarding it to their friends—and before any potential nominations—they received for their efforts a congratulatory electronic card that invited them to take a trend-spotting quiz. A sample question: “How would you describe your beauty personality? a) I don’t touch the stuff; b) You name it, I’ve tried it; c) Lip balm, mascara and moisturizer only.”

Each girl was also given a personalized Web page, containing Sephora marketing offers, that allowed them to see how many nominations they received. The girls with the most nominations won. (Sephora declined to detail the number of winners.) “In girls” then received targeted Sephora products in exchange for providing their opinions.

Sephora says it learned that by asking customers to reach out to their peers—in the form of the nominations—it had a response rate three times higher than that seen from its other marketing efforts. Which is not to say the company will discard such things as online banners.

“For us, there’s always something new going on in the online space, and we don’t want to abandon traditional interactive outlets,” says Tiffany Lei, marketing director, Sephora. “It’s not so much trading one for the other as building a robust program overall.”

In addition to the personalized Web page, each girl received exclusive benefits. However, a mere 5 percent of the girls who asked friends to nominate them managed to recruit 40 percent of the overall traffic to the program. Sephora is currently determining how it will inspire the passive users to become active brand emissaries. “It’s extremely valuable to understand who those people are and then figuring out what we need to do to get the 95 percent to act like the 5 percent,” says Jim Calhoun, CEO of PopularMedia.

This holiday season, Sephora will begin its second viral campaign, this one for the ongoing “Beauty Insider” program introduced this summer. It gives customers who spend $100 access to exclusive samples. The program’s Web page also gives consumers makeup tips and birthday gifts. Advertising has centered on in-store signage and print catalogs.

Some of the tactics being implemented from the “In girl” campaign include: the creation of a microsite with social networking capabilities, offers of exclusive products and a popularity contest based on the social stock of users. Lei notes that “we used what we learned from ‘In girl.’ … We can test different content, creative and messaging quickly and cost-effectively through [these] online marketing [efforts]. The results from these tests are then applied to our catalog and other collateral.”

“In girl” and “Beauty Insider” are not Sephora’s only online efforts to engage consumers in social media. The company also hosts “The Red Carpet Blog,” which tracks Hollywood product use, and has a “Beauty Central” page dedicated to trends and news in the beauty business.

Sephora’s move from a six-week testing campaign to a full-blown destination program is another sign that marketers are recognizing the critical role social media play in their marketing efforts.

A recent study from One Up Web, “Secrets of Social Marketing Success,” examined the use of social media by companies such as Apple, Nintendo and Sephora and found that these “companies have been strategically generating and marketing their holiday buzz in creative new ways.”