Case Study: Singapore Airlines Tests Viral e-Card Campaign

CHALLENGE: When Singapore Airlines decided to invest in a major advertising campaign to celebrate its new route from Singapore to Chicago last summer, the airline bought a multi-channel media package from AOL/Time Warner including TV ads on CNN, print ads in Fortune, Time's Asian edition, and other related offline media.

Although the package also included some banner ads to reach's visitors from the Midwest, Europe and Asia, online certainly wasn't the campaign's primary or even secondary focus.

But when CNN's regional Sales Director William Hsu wanted to deliver a little something extra to add a bit more value to the buy, he turned to online agency Web Guru Asia. "It was an add-on they paid a little extra to get," explains Jeff Zweig, Chief Guru Southeast Asia, "It wasn't part of the main marketing drive at all."

Here was Zweig's chance to convince a potentially huge client that online advertising really works.

CAMPAIGN: There was no time or money for a long-term branding or general awareness campaign. Instead the team decided to focus on a quickly measurable goal - gathering opt-in email addresses.

Web Guru Asia decided to create a campaign using two of the most proven response generators online - a sweepstakes with a viral component. Zweig says "We had a theory that, even though banners get low clicks, with a viral engine multiplying them we'd get some incredible results."

The banners were easy to create. Each focused on the sweepstakes prize - three pairs of business class tickets on Singapore Airlines. The microsite that banner clicks would end up at was harder to build. (Link to sample below.)

It wasn't that Singapore Airlines wasn't enthusiastic about collecting data from sweeps entrants; the problem was they were a little too enthusiastic. This is a very common mistake that many marketers, creating their first online registration form, make. "Initially they wanted specific age, and frequent flier membership numbers" says Zweig. "We explained the whole theory of permission. You have to be careful about what you ask for, or you'll drive people away."

After some back and forth, the client settled on a slightly shorter set of questions that seems perfect to them, but still a bit too long to Zweig. He told them that he'd watch the results carefully using real time reporting tools, and if things seemed slow to make the form even shorter.

Visitors who cleared the registration form hurdle were presented with their choice of four ecards featuring photos of Chicago, which they were encouraged to send friends. The budget was tight, so instead of hiring photographers, Zweig simply asked the client to send over all the shots they had already taken or bought for various other marketing collateral. Then he picked four.

1. Chicago by night (a skyline shot)
2. Chicago by day (another skyline shot)
3. Singapore Girls in Chicago (two Asian models in distinctive Singapore Airlines garb, with a male blues singer.)
4. Chicago Theater (an outside shot of the theater)

To generate as much viral activity as possible, after visitors clicked submit, instead of a confirmation page, they were sent back to the ecard page. Zweig says, "We threw them the same screen over and over again." In addition, visitors could request to be notified via email when their friends picked up their cards. They could also check their stats online.

Plus for further incentive, for each friend who picked up a card at the site, registrants got another chance to win the prize (the limit was set at fifty chances).

Visitors friends received a simple text email message informing them to pick their card up at the site and enter the sweeps while they were there. To reduce potential spam complaints and increase clicks, the 'From' line was their friends name, not Singapore Airlines. The 'Subject' line also started with the friend's first name (for example, Jeff) and read simply. "Jeff sent you and ecard".

Web Guru Asia were also careful to add a privacy policy to the site, and to make sure none of the outgoing email addresses of friends receiving ecards were added to the database. Only true opt-ins' email addresses were kept.

Every part of the site and email campaign was in English only.

Just before the campaign launched, CNN's Hsu asked Zweig to predict how well it would do. Zweig told him, "We think you can get about 50,000 names".

RESULTS: Zweig was completely wrong. Instead of 50,000 opt-ins the campaign garnered 360,000 registered entrants, 80% of whom also opted-in to receive future email communications from Singapore Airlines.

In total more than 3 million branded ecards were sent from the microsite, 2 million of which were picked up. Just 350,000 of the ecard notifications bounced due to invalid email addresses. An average of 9 ecards was sent per entrant, however some people sent out hundreds of ecards.

Although about 70% of all entrants came through the viral element, Zweig notes, "By plotting banner impressions against registrants, it became clear that more impressions yielded a corresponding surge in more registrants through the first four weeks. After that time, the virus started to burn itself out."

Web Guru Asia's inbound email customer service team had to deal with 12,300 incoming emails, 8,000 of which were auto-bounce messages spam and 4,300 of which were questions. "No matter how simple and straight-forward it is to enter, there are always people who may not understand. We turned all questions around in 24 hours - it's very important."

Entrants were from more than 200 countries, the most popular of which were:

1. Singapore
2. USA
3. Malaysia
4. Indonesia
5. Australia

The campaign was so successful, that although Zweig was read to alter the registration form and the email copy to improve results if he needed to, he didn't. "It was just so strong. It really surprised us."

Real-time reporting also meant the excitement about the campaign spread quickly on the client-side. Zweig says, "On the first day we got 10,000-15,000 registrations - remember we'd told them we'd get maybe 50,000 after eight weeks - William Hsu would call me three times a day. 'Have you logged in? I don't believe it!' Psychologically, because the viral was so successful in the mind of Singapore Airlines, all of the sudden this thing that was a nice little add-on became a channel of significant benefit."

Zweig notes that Web Guru Asia was extremely lucky in their choice of hosting partner as the campaign exceeded projections. "We worked with iLink Holdings Limited, a fantastic data center in Hong Kong. We had dedicated servers set up with 24x7 monitoring. During the first week they were sending more than 12 emails a second at peak. That's huge! They were good at watching capacity, within two hours we had a back-up server in there. 100% of email went out because of this contingency plan.

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