Going to New Heights
Meryl Norwicki, Melissa Ebanks, Rachel Castino, Sean Sympson and Tracey Mallar

Wanted: Internet Dating site seeks traffic-heavy billboard and adventurous single woman for mid-winter live outdoor ad campaign. Such was the concept behind MindShare New York’s winning media plan for Yahoo! Personals, which took online dating, reality broadcasting and outdoor advertising to new heights.

For nearly 12 hours a day over three days in early January this year, adventurous single woman Julie Koehnen skimmed Yahoo! Personals profiles online, had nine dates and fielded interviews from radio and TV stations—all from a billboard off Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. The live event launched Yahoo! Personals’ “Project: Real People,” a yearlong campaign employing 50 real singles chosen from the service’s users. “We thought it was best to showcase our biggest asset—the diverse people in our database—as opposed to models,” says Sandra Micek, director of marketing for Yahoo! Personals.

The $20.8 million project was MindShare’s first media placement for the client. “When we got the Yahoo! business, we looked at heavy Internet users and saw that the type of TV they liked to watch was reality programming,” says Bill Pascador, senior partner, group planning director at MindShare. “They really like seeing how other people live and relationship-type television.”

Two brainstorming groups—Yahoo!’s Buzz Marketing division and MindShare’s Wow Factory (its nontraditional media unit)—decided that the best way to bring online dating to life was to put a live Personals member on a billboard and Webcast her dating adventures in real time. The goal of the event was to communicate how the site works, give the clientele a face, and drive more real-people traffic (singles 25-49) to the site.

The project had to be pulled together in one month, requiring the work of MindShare media planners Rachel Castino and Tracey Mallar, along with planning supervisor Melissa Ebanks; Yahoo!’s Buzz Marketing unit; broadcast engineers and producers; Yahoo! corporate counsel; Personals’ marketing and creative departments; and Wow Factory creatives.

The first hurdle was finding a billboard location. After considering sites in Miami, Atlanta and Los Angeles, MindShare settled on a board close to street level on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, across from the Sky Bar and Mondrian Hotel. The spot offered high visibility in a trendy area and proximity to the strip’s pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Though out-of-home venues usually require advanced notice for booking, Regency Outdoor was able to fit Yahoo!’s three-day plan between two other advertisers.

A construction crew quickly built a platform at the base of the board for a couch, table and desk with computer. Thanks to L.A.’s film industry, MindShare was able to procure a filming license that covered all the zoning and insurance issues. But the last—and key—step of the project, was choosing the right person to represent the brand and execute the campaign. Yahoo! Personals chose Koehnen, a 39-year-old screenwriter, because she “embodied a lot of the attributes of Yahoo!” says Micek. “She was fun, but a busy professional too.”

“[Julie was] well-spoken, attractive and had a good sense of humor,” adds Norm Chait, partner, group planning director with the Wow Factory. “It was important to choose a woman because we wanted to draw women to the site.”

The board’s proximity to the Strip allowed passersby to eye Koehnen’s progress and shout encouragement. Her photo, which any avid online dater knows is crucial, took up one-quarter of the board. The rest of the board explained Koehnen’s quest, and the Yahoo! Personals logo hovered just above the couch.

Koehnen searched the Personals site daily for prospective dates, receiving thousands of “icebreakers” (free messages) and e-mails from paid subscribers, including one from an American soldier in Iraq. Over three days, she chose eight eligible bachelors for brief dates at the board, choosing one of the eight men to return for a final date. The prospects included a cop and a Russian surfer; dinner discussion ranged from toenails to democracy to the Sierras. For her final date, Koehnen called back Clark Drake. They stepped onto solid ground for a meeting and have been dating ever since.

As for Yahoo! Personals, the campaign was a match made in heaven. “Part of its success was the buzz—it created both national and local exposure,” says Chait. The billboard event attracted 347 national and local TV and radio stories across 100 markets, including an interview with Koehnen on Good Morning America.

In addition, Web site traffic increased threefold during Koehnen’s billboard tenure. For the week ending Jan. 11, Yahoo! Personals attracted 2.28 million unique visitors, a 34 percent increase over its unique audience the week ending Jan. 4, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Per Yahoo! research, the overall audience reach across broadcast, print and online media totaled 126 million people, and Yahoo! Personals witnessed its best quarter since its 1997 launch.

“The amazing thing was that we bought one billboard and made it perform for us in such a unique way,” says Micek. “It was a pretty efficient buy, given the numbers of people reached,” adds Chait.

Aimee Deeken is the assistant editor for Mediaweek.