July 30, 2002
Case Study

Viral Marketing Danger: Online Survey to Gather Sales Leads Gets Out of Control

SUMMARY: It seemed like a good idea at the time, when Stephen Axel, VP Global Marketing Aladdin Knowledge Systems, got the free use of a trade magazine's postal mailing list, he sent out a brightly colored mailer designed to drive recipients to an online survey with a gift offer. He hoped it would generate a couple of hundred sales leads.

Then the campaign spun out of control when someone posted a link to the survey on 25 public Web sites. Suddenly Axel had more than 15,000 survey respondents on his hands demanding complimentary t-shirts and Amazon gift certificates. Hear how he and his webmaster sprang into action to save the day. Plus, what his sales reps thought of the extra leads.
Stephen Axel, VP Global Marketing Aladdin Knowledge Systems, is a cautious man.

This spring when trade magazine Dr Dobbs Journal offered him the use of a 36,000 postal mailing list at no cost as a benefit of being a long-time print advertiser, he didn't whip out a mailing to all 36,000 names at once.

Instead Axel carefully devised a quick test mailing to just 6,000 names to learn what worked best. Then he planned to roll the campaign to the rest of the list.

The list itself was not a perfect match for Aladdin because the Company's average account size is at least $5,000-$10,000 per year. Dr Dobbs readers usually are not directly in charge of spending that kind of money, but they know who is.

Axel had to devise an indirect campaign to gather sales leads from people who were not qualified leads themselves. Axel decided to use a tactic he had tested with success before; an online survey.

Axel explains, "We didn't ask for any personal information about them [respondents]. What we wanted to do was to tap into their knowledge of what products their company was using already, whether they were going to change what they were doing, and who were the top people in their organization dealing with [products like ours] such as VP Ops or product managers."

A home run would be to score information on a prospect using one of his competitor's products. "If we can get a VP Ops name, and we know they're using a competitive product, then we immediately go after that person saying, 'Are you having quality problems?'"

Instead of asking for name and title, the survey Axel placed online for direct mail respondents asked roughly eight questions about their company. "Less than 10, that's the magical number." It also included a non-checked opt-in box to join Aladdin's email newsletter list, and any delivery info needed to fulfill the gift the survey promised all respondents.

Why a gift for filling out a survey? "There's no question you need a good enough incentive when it comes down to it," explains Axel. In fact after the list chosen, the incentive used is the most important factor in the success of his campaigns.

Since in this case the list was already determined, Axel decided to divide his test mailing into four equal cells of 1,500 names, each featuring the same creative with a slightly different incentive offer.

Test offer 1: Your choice of a $10 Amazon gift certificate or an orange t-shirt featuring a large picture of a chicken emblazoned with the catchphrase "Pirates, Cluck off!" (Axel personally felt this was going to be the winner of the test.)

Test offer 2: Same as #1 only with a $15 Amazon certificate.

Test offer 3: Same as #1 only with the offer limited to the first 500 respondents

Test offer 4: Your choice of a $15 Amazon gift certificate or an orange chicken t-shirt with a different catchphrase "Chickens should roam free, your software shouldn't" which was already well known from Aladdin's ads in Dr Dobbs.

The direct mail package (see link to sample below) was a brightly colored orange and yellow self-mailer. "We wanted the outside of the piece to really get attention. We didn't want to worry about getting drowned in the inbox, so it was very bright. It stuck out."

The test packages were mailed via first class on April 25th 2002 with an offer expiration date of Friday May 10th. Each test had a different landing page URL so Axel could keep track of which offer worked the best.

He expected a "standard response rate between 1.5%-3.5%" including a few viral responses because some recipients might pass the mailer around or email the offer URL to others in their office.

Best case scenario he figured he'd get up to 210 responses.

When Axel walked into the office on the Monday after the campaign expired he got a huge shock. More than 15,000 people had filled out the survey, and were expecting almost $200,000 in gift certificates and t-shirts from Aladdin.

"We immediately started damage control," Axel says. Together with his webmaster, he took the following steps:

1. Shutting down the online survey sites. Because responses had been coming in at pretty much the expected pace when Axel checked them a few days earlier, he had left the office on Friday night (the night the offer expired) without closing the survey immediately. After all, what would a few stragglers matter?

2. Examining web logs to determine where the traffic was coming from.

"What happened was on the afternoon of May 9th [24 hours before the offer expired] one of the people who received one of the cards decided to post it on public Web sites saying 'Hey you want a free $15 Amazon gift certificate, go fill out this survey.'"

This note ended up at least 25 different Web sites such as techbargains.com and igotadealforyou.com. "Interestingly, not just in the US but also on foreign language sites around the world."

3. Culling through the database to discover which respondents qualified for the free offer. Axel notes he was very lucky that respondents did not get their gifts automatically. "It was all manual." This meant, by his own offer's stated rules, he could stop gifts going out to anyone who did not fill out the survey completely or who filled it out after the expiration date.

Turns out the vast majority of names came in over the weekend, after the offer officially expired.

4. Emailing a letter of apology to non-qualifiers. Axel immediately sent a text-only note of apology to the 12,500+ names that had not made the deadline. The from line was his name, the subject line was "Aladdin Web Survey."

Although the direct mailer had clearly stated the offer expiration date, the online survey form itself had not mentioned it because Axel had not expected anyone to find the survey without knowledge of the mailer. He had to explain this in the note.

"It was polite. I wrote the letter from me personally and included my name, my phone number and my email." Because the survey form had included an opt-in box for Aladdin's email newsletter, Axel was careful to include unsubscribe information for anyone who might wish to no longer be on that list because they had not qualified for a gift.

Although he expected a few negative emails in return, Axel was again surprised by the overwhelming response. "I probably got 1,100-1,200 emails back." About 900 of these came from people in later time zones who felt they should still qualify for the gifts because it was still May 10th for them when they responded. Axel agreed and made sure they got their gifts.

Final results:

- After culling down the answers, "We picked up 1,392 potentially usable names that people taking the survey gave us. There is no question viral helped."

- Responses prior to the viral fever had already revealed a clear offer winner: the $10 Amazon gift certificate or "cluck-off" t-shirt offer, and of these responses, "The vast majority wanted the t-shirt."

- About 2,000 total respondents checked the box to opt-in for the email newsletter. However, Axel says, "You've got to question their motives…"

- Final cost-per-qualified lead was $16.50. "There's no question the viral got the cost down."

- Aladdin's sales team were pleased with the quality of the culled leads. "It's really paying off now. We're using the database for telemarketing and already closing business with it."

Yes, Axel is planning on doing more gift offer survey campaigns, and in fact he is strongly considering posting his offers on some of the sites that drove the most traffic this time around. However, he will move forward with a few strict rules in place:

Rule #1. Put your expiration date, time, and time zone on the online form.

Rule #2. Clearly state that gifts are for "qualified entries only" and explain what constitutes qualification. In Axel's case he plans to test including telemarketing as part of the qualification process, "Submit your details and we'll call you to further qualify you to win."

Rule #3. Do not make it a contest. If it is a sweeps or other contest, marketing laws in many countries including the US may affect your offer. Every qualified entrant should get a gift.

Rule #4. Be ready to shut your survey down quickly and easily when you need to.

Rule #5. Respond to all inquiries with a personal note if possible. These are people who may work for important sales prospects. Do not turn them off with an obvious form letter from a company instead of a human being.

Rule #6. Even if it is fairly easy to automate gift fulfillment, make sure you have included a step to double-check entries for fraud or other non-compliance.

Useful links

Sample of Aladdin's direct mail creative:


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