It’s beginning to look a lot like OfficeMax, isn’t it?
This week, the office supply company unveiled its 2009 version of “Elf Yourself,” its annual holiday promotion that allows any of us to upload photos and turn ourselves and our friends (or your kids, or boss, or cranky Aunt Mary, or your cat) into Santa’s velvet-clad helpers. It went live, for the fourth consecutive year, this past Tuesday.
Elf Yourself is undoubtedly a successful campaign: Last year, OfficeMax said visitors to the site sent some 35 million Elf-ed ecards. Since the seasonal site launched in 2006, OfficeMax says it’s received 284 million visits.
But, that said, the campaign has been criticized for not having any real impact on OfficeMax’s bottom line. In other words, you’d expect the marketing results to match the incredible engagement rate, right?
But, nope. Despite the huge traffic, OfficeMax didn’t record a huge boost in sales. In a 2008 interview with Jennifer Jones, Office Max’s VP of Marketing and Advertising Bob Thacker said he was okay with that.
Advertising in that context, Thacker says, would have come off as a “a party crasher.” OfficeMax was more interested in differentiating itself in a confusing market of office supply stores with similar-sounding names (Office Depot and OfficeMax being the most easily confused), using humor and personality to warm up its brand. Secondary was driving actual sales.
In his new book, The Next Evolution of Marketing (McGraw Hill, 2010), Bob Gilbreath takes OfficeMax to task for that attitude. “[D]ifferentiating itself from its competition is certainly a keen and worthy goal. But differentiating itself without paying attention to bottom-line results is just bad business practice—and poor marketing planning.”
Gilbreath argues that the campaign could have accomplished both by, say, adding a promotional sales offer to the site (“Save 10 percent now...."). Or perhaps it might have offered a free glossy printing of your Elf photo from a physical store location.
Does Bob Gilbreath have a point? Certainly. But, at the same time, it’s important to note that OfficeMax’s ElfYourself campaign has been continually evolving. I particularly like the way that OfficeMax continues to innovate and experiment with its elves, advancing its campaign lockstep with the evolution of social and digital marketing. Plus, as Thacker points out, it’s been way cheaper than a TV commercial might have been.
And, in fact, the 2009 version seems to strategically have its act together, on several fronts:
1. Easier sharing (again). Last year, OfficeMax partnered with JibJab, which required users to register in order to share their videos with their friends. That might have been good for JibJab (which got a nice boost to its user base), but not so good for sharing across various networks. This year, JibJab remains a partner, but the roadblock is gone.
2. A stronger commerce component. Users are now encouraged to buy friends and family sporting Elf couture on mugs, mousepads, gift cards, greeting cards, blankets and more. Users can also pay to download a version to store locally.
Bonus: The navigation cleanly supports the commerce and encourages engagement, too: Once you share your video through the channel of your choosing, you can share it again, or create a new video, or buy more stuff. In other words, if there’s a dead end, I couldn’t find one (that’s a pet peeve of mine on some sharing sites).
3. Elves gone wild. This year, most significantly, the elves tie into Facebook and Twitter, offering users an option to tweet a custom video or to share it on Facebook. Additionally, it uses Facebook Connect, so that users can source headshots from their photo albums or their friends'. Social media folks love stuff like this, and the elves are pretty much guaranteed significant viral exposure through Twitter, Facebook News Feeds, and so on.4. And more dance steps! And finally, this year, you can put yourselves in more ridiculous and hilarious scenarios: “Disco Elves,” “Country Elves,” “Hip-Hop Elves” or the amusingly named “Elf Classic.” (Plus! Hear them sing!)
So will the OfficeMax elves go down as the most successful social-media marketing campaign that the Web has yet seen? Or will they be remembered as merely an entertaining campaign lacking discernable objectives? I can’t predict, but I’m guessing that 2009 is the year when it’ll finally be clear, at least for OfficeMax, whether the elves are naughty... or very nice.