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November 13, 2009

TiVo-Ruder Finn Campaign Offers PR Secrets for Launching a Wildly Successful YouTube Video

By Frank Zeccola

2008 was a huge year for TiVo, filled with partnership announcements with Amazon, Rhapsody, Picasa, Music Choice and other mainstream brands. Then, in the spring of that year came a cultural breakthrough: YouTube would soon be available on TiVo.

But with all the news and excitement surrounding the earlier partnerships and releases, TiVo feared reporter fatigue would set in when it came time for the YouTube announcement. Together with agency Ruder Finn, they wanted to do something unique from a PR perspective to jolt TiVo back into the news cycle and hit their target audience—the YouTube Generation—with something memorable.

The challenge: Snatch the attention span of the YouTube Generation with a compelling PR campaign. TiVo and Ruder Finn knew the YouTube announcement would play in the tech press and Silicon Valley blogosphere. But reaching young consumers with the news was a different story altogether.

TiVo and Ruder Finn's anxiety was heightened by the fact YouTube capabilities could be easily overlooked: "TiVo offers an endless number of features that consumers were not aware of at the time," says Ruder Finn executive vice president Lisa Novak. "YouTube was one such feature that was about to be announced. We wanted to make sure it wasn't lost in the shuffle—and that it would be noticed by a younger group of customers. At that time, YouTube was something that mostly younger people were paying attention to."

It was obvious that they had to take the campaign straight to the source: YouTube.

The strategy: Launch a viral video on YouTube to highlight the YouTube partnership news. A viral video on YouTube is the dream of many execs, PR and marketing professionals. But those who do it right are extremely rare.

Ruder Finn decided they shouldn't start from square one. Staffers began combing the Internet for a web personality who already had a presence on YouTube and who could help co-produce—and star in—TiVo's viral video.

"We took a look at the Internet celebrities out there," Novak says. "We wanted to find someone who would resonate with our target audience and showcase TiVo's YouTube feature and the many ways consumers could interact with it. We wanted to identify someone who would work on tactical level."

To that end, the agency began working with Cory "Mr. Safety" Williams, a veteran YouTube star with an audience of more than 50,000 subscribers. He's known for creating authentic content, and his most popular video had been viewed more than 10 million times.

"Corey had a lot of subscribers and a good built-in audience," Novak says. "His content isn't overly controversial and it fits into TiVo's brand personality." In addition: "He also has media appeal beyond social media. He's been on awards shows and late night shows. That's important when launching a new feature in terms of PR."

Roadblock to success: Loss of control. Engaging Williams to work on the video was a great idea. But in order for it to appear authentic, Ruder Finn knew they would have to relinquish control and let Williams do his thing. This meant getting buy-in from TiVo first.

"The biggest challenge in this campaign was convincing our client that this was the way to go," Novak says. "TiVo is an innovative company. But there were several risks in losing control of a very well-recognized brand and known entity. Allowing someone else to take ownership is not easy for a well-established brand. There's a tendency to want more control and to tweak everything—but we ultimately agreed to give Corey creative license."

The solution: Risk giving up control to extend reach. They agreed to let Williams run with it. For the most part. "We gave him a few parameters," Novak says. "He had to mention TiVo and show the functionality of YouTube on TiVo. But other than that, we gave him a lot of leeway."

She continues: "At the time, you didn't see as many companies offering up control of their own brands online. We held our breath a little bit. We had final approval, but this was something that was new within the company."

The result was "My Weird Dream," a video of Mr. Safety falling asleep while watching YouTube on TiVo. During his dream, Williams discovers that he can sink a basketball into a garbage can every time he shoots. He throws the ball from 100 yards and it lands in the can. He then throws the ball up into space, where it bounces off the helmet of an astronaut, returns to Earth and lands in the can. He magically throws the ball into Super Mario Brothers land, where Mario head butts it as it returns to reality and lands in the garbage can. When he wakes up, a voice-over says, "Never fall asleep while watching YouTube videos on TV."

The video is wacky and intriguing, and the corporate messages are subtle throughout. "The video's quirkiness really showcased TiVo's YouTube feature," Novak says.

Once the video was ready, Ruder Finn reached out to more than two dozen bloggers and journalists with advance news of the service, planting them with the story so it would run in sync with the video. They customized pitches for each individual media outlet. "For example, using Corey in a pitch to The Wall Street Journal might not have worked," Novak says. "But when reaching out to media targeting a younger demographic interested in YouTube, it was the right pitch."

The results: More than 1 million YouTube views and 6 million traditional media impressions on a tight budget. In the first three days, the video was viewed more than 200,000 times, and that number climbed to 500,000 within months. They created a follow-up video and landed a million total views.

"The end result was very pleasing," Novak says. "With a very small financial investment, we got a million views for both videos—and over 700,000 for 'My Weird Dream' alone."

Traditional media hits proved equally as impressive. More than 6 million mainstream media impressions resulted, including coverage in top outlets like Reuters, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today and Wall Street Journal.

"This campaign was ahead of its time," Novak says. "It wasn't a me-too campaign. It was unique and interesting—especially for a brand like TiVo."

Secrets for success: Read on as Novak offers more tips and explains why this campaign Bronze in "Best Technology Campaign—Consumer" at the 2009 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations and Publicity:

1. Relinquish control when incorporating user-generated content—as long as it's right for the brand. "Consider a user-generated approach if there's some personality to your brand," she recommends. "Look at the overall brand persona. It might not be right for some brands that are overly corporate, or if there are regulations in your industry. But a fun-loving, light-hearted brand can offer user-generated stories that will really resonate with consumers."

2. Screen web personalities carefully. "Do your due diligence when identifying web celebrities," she stresses. "Review their past videos carefully. You have to feel comfortable with the person you're giving all that control to."

3. Don't ignore traditional media platforms: Take a consistent, holistic approach to old and new media. "This was a campaign that relied heavily on social media—but we didn't leave out traditional media," she says. "Despite the siren song of social media, it should not be at the cost of ignoring traditional press. Like any campaign, whether it's a new product launch or reviving life into your brand, it's important to look holistically. What you do in social media might not be the same as what you do with traditional media, but the messages should be consistent so you're telling the same story. It's OK if the tactics differ."

WINNER'S PROFILE: Ruder Finn, Inc. is a privately held, family-owned public relations agency with a wide range of PR practices and services and offices around the world.

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