Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What if we give it away? (sweepstakes or shameless REM reference?)

While many marketers constantly search for new marketing ideas, many more persist in using the same old things.  While some of these ideas outlive their usefulness (does anyone else still get unsolicited fax ads?), others persist because, on some level, they still work.  And, if nothing else, Translinear marketing depends on tactics that deliver.

So today, I’d like to discuss an idea that I think still has a few tricks up its sleeve: the sweepstakes.

Traditionally, marketers have used sweepstakes thusly:
  1. Offer something of great value, typically the product being promoted
  2. Take personal information of interested parties including, but not limited to, name, address, age and category/product interest
  3. Award prizes
  4. Flood entrants with direct mail, email, Facebook status updates, Tweets, etc. until heat death of the universe or until the marketing department has another priority, whichever comes first

Many marketers consider sweepstakes effective because they can point to a big bucket of entry slips and say “look how many prospects we generated.”

We’ll explore the faulty logic of this approach to sweepstakes in a moment, but first, as a contrast, let’s look at another common giveaway tactic.  Many marketers in the business-to-business space use white papers to generate prospects.  While white paper offers work similarly to sweepstakes, they differ in some key ways.
  • While a white paper has value, it has a very specific value.  The white paper exists to educate* the reader about a specific topic.  To get value out of the white paper, the reader has to put time and effort into reading it.
  • Marketers may follow up on the information gathered personally by having sales people call the prospects to discuss their needs.

Marketers employing white papers generally do a better job of separating the wheat from the chaff than sweepstakes marketers do.  Firstly, white papers represent something of specific appeal.  Who hasn’t signed up to win a free car, computer or trip that he or she wouldn’t spend his or her own money on under any circumstances?  Secondly, white paper marketers understand more closely that some prospects who ask for the white paper will have greater value than others.

Sweepstakes marketers can learn from white paper marketers.  A big giveaway generates buzz and interest, so it probably does not make sense to skimp on the sweepstakes prize.  However, marketers should take into account that sweepstakes participants will range from people very likely to buy the product in question to people with no interest whatsoever.  As a result, they should re-think part four of the list above, follow-up contacts.

Instead of treating every entrant the same, why not try to use communications to identify the relatively small pool of likely buyers from the large pool of people who just want free stuff?  Typically, follow-up communications thank the entrant for participating and then invite him or her to learn more.

On the face of it, this approach would seem resonant with Translinear marketing.  After all, the marketers is trying to maintain contact with the prospect.  However, this contact generally remains one-size-fits all--everyone gets the same postcard, Tweet or what-have-you.

What if a sweepstakes marketer instead assumed that most of the respondents had no value at all?

Imagine this scenario: a consumer electronics marketer wants to sell large TVs.  Let’s say 70”.  Since these TVs sell for thousands of dollars, the number of people willing to buy them falls well short of the number of people who would gladly lug one into their living rooms for free.  Let’s say as well that the marketer asks entrants to follow a specific Twitter feed to participate.

Now, the marketer could simply send Tweets that drive consumers to learn more about or to buy the TV on websites.  Or, instead, the marketer could send out a Tweet aimed squarely at the people who do, in fact, buy 70” TVs.  Instead of a Tweet about the number of HDMI inputs, the marketer could link to an article on its site showing how well the TV fits into a fine home.  Or it could link to an article about fine-tuning your TV to watch golf.  

Using cookies judiciously, the marketer could then determine which entrants most closely fit the profile of people who buy absurdly large TVs and then follow up accordingly (targeted emails, assuming that the sweepstakes entry included an email address, targeted offers on the site, etc.).  These more focused approaches, I think, would make greater use of the entrants’ interest, even if it meant ignoring 90% or more of the actual entrants.

Now, of course, many marketers offer top-of-the-line items in sweepstakes to drum up interest in more modest options.  So, of course, selected Tweets could identify the people who only want 32” or 46” TVs, but the principle remains the same.  Put content in the communications that speak directly to likely purchasers and forget about the rest.

A critic might point out that electronic communications--email, Tweets, Facebook messages--essentially cost nothing.  Why not simply keep sending them?  The answer comes down to how much the marketer values his time.  Sure, a generic Tweet costs as much to send as a targeted Tweet (read: nothing).  However, it still takes the marketer time to write it and also to develop landing pages to exploit it.

So the question remains, does the marketer want to make a big noise or make a little money?

*Yes, many white papers fail to educate and instead come across as sales brochures without pictures.  But let’s leave the art of writing white papers to another post.

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