KLM Watches Traffic Take Off

KLM Airlines is harnessing the influence of YouTube star “Mr. Safety” to fuel a promotion touting the airline’s reach to exotic destinations.

The promo, designed by branded entertainment studio Madison Road Entertainment, is the latest to link a brand to an “Internet famous” star with a built-in audience.

Forget E.F. Hutton: When the Chocolate Rain dude says, ‘Go do this,’ his people listen. “Web stars have an uncanny ability to drive action because of the rapport an audience feels with them,” Madison Road Entertainment’s managing partner Jak Severson said. “The cost to have 8,000 people do anything on TV? It wouldn’t be worth it.”

The driver for the Dutch airline’s promo is for viewers to help Mr. Safety (aka Cory Williams) pick a honeymoon destination. KLM gave him a trip to any of its destinations as a wedding gift but will upgrade it to business class if fans go to its Web site and choose one for him. Three days after it went live last month, the YouTube teaser had 150,000 views, and 10,000 people rushed to KLM’s site to help him plan his trip. In its first experiment in social media, KLM’s traffic has already jumped 19 percent.

The contest goes live Oct. 13, when Mr. Safety posts a follow-up video from his vacation spot. This clip directs fans to the KLM site to participate in the “Picture Me” promo, where they will have the tools to Photoshop their image—much like that popular Internet squirrel meme—into a travel poster featuring sights in Africa, Europe and other destinations and forward to friends and family. The top five vote getters win prizes; one will win two tickets anywhere KLM flies.

The promo targets young, savvy, international travelers who buy online to introduce them to KLM’s routes and its new sales channel, said Tjalling Smit, director of acquisitions for KLM. Smit expects consumers to share the news virally via the postcards with friends who have similar economic traits.

So far, he’s impressed. In one week, 14,000 people connected the site and 4,000 left their e-mail addresses, Smit said. “These customers chose to engage in a relationship with us and to be informed of our activities. There’s no contest yet,” he added.

Severson said the promo isn’t just about buying access to a YouTube star. “This is about building a system to get people to share info with everybody they know,” he said. Mr. Safety may film out of his lowly apartment, but he has more than 350,000 subscribers.

Erik Nielsen, evp, strategy at Trailer Park Studios, says this “Celebrity 2.0” phenom is a natural evolution. Harnessing the power of new media is still a mystery to companies, he said, so brands are leaving the marketing to the experts: Webcam-enabled civilians with a lot of free time and a little ingenuity.

“This is their medium, they embody it and they know how to use it,” said Nielsen, whose full-service agency and production house called on Web celebs in a viral Valentine’s Day promotion for client Netflix that moved the needle. “It’s the next generation of getting Paris Hilton to wear your brand [in hopes that she’ll be] photographed at a party in it for US Weekly. And from a ROI standpoint, there’s little out there that can deliver so much interest and involvement.”

Meanwhile, Madison Road created a Web celeb-centric program for client Sanyo in March. It was so successful, Sanyo came back for seconds in June. These types of deals, which cost very little and can have much measurable impact, have changed the entertainment marketing business, he says.

“You can watch the numbers change by the minute,” said Severson, who calls the concept engineered virality. “What other media exists that can do this? A [true] viral sensation is really hard to create, but if it’s properly engineered, it’s practically guaranteed.”