The new influencers

Alberta Venture Magazine | By Eve Lazarus

Social media has changed the marketing environment. Now millions of ordinary people are determining what people say, think and buy.

Larissa Walkiw, 19, loves hanging out with her friends, surfing the web, and wearing skinny-leg jeans. She’s pretty much your typical teenager. And that’s exactly why Common Wealth Credit Union picked Walkiw to be its youth spokesperson. Each week she cranks out four blogs, creates a video post and represents the credit union at various events across Alberta.

It’s a brave leap of faith for a conservative financial institution to take, given that there are no restraints that might make the conversations boring or unauthentic to the under-25 set. Walkiw gets to do whatever she wants.

Last year Common Wealth executives examined their member base and realized that 17-to 25-year-olds made up only 10% of their total membership, completely out of whack with Alberta’s demographics. CEO and president Jeff Mulligan felt the Lloydminster-based credit union should do something to target this specific age group and regenerate its aging membership. “They [the under-25 set] are making countless decisions far sooner and at a far greater magnitude than generations before them,” he says.

The challenge, says Mulligan, is reaching this seemingly unreachable Generation Y, building brand awareness, while at the same time having 400-odd staff members pull behind you. Mulligan is a plugged-in 48-year-old, but it quickly became apparent to him that if the credit union wanted to reach people under 25, it would have to offer a product with benefits.

Common Wealth partnered with Currency Marketing, a Chilliwack, B.C.-based advertising agency to do a brand audit and identify ways to connect with the target audience. To his dismay, Currency president and chief strategist Tim McAlpine discovered that Alberta financial institutions were pretty much ignoring the needs of youth. “Unlike B.C., where there are a number of credit unions that have an under-25 free chequing account, there was no product in that space in Alberta,” says McAlpine. The agency and Common Wealth quickly launched Young & Free, a free chequing account targeted towards 17- to 25-year olds.

The next step was to find a spokesperson. Instead of hiring an actor, the credit union launched a contest, letting the under-25s pick their own spokesperson. The winner would blog on a regular basis, post video clips to the company’s newly created microsite, promote Common Wealth around the province and essentially work for the credit union 20 hours a week for one year. In return, he or she would receive a car, an Apple MacBook computer, a digital camcorder, camera, and a phone. “Right away we were letting the 17-to 25-year-old demographic have a say about who was going to be their spokesperson in our organization,” says Mulligan.

The credit union’s microsite, Youngfreealberta.com, quickly became the information hub for the product launch and the spokesperson search. Common Wealth received 15 applications, most of them 60-second YouTube video clips and one blog post. While candidates tried to win over voters during the two-month-long contest, they generated a ton of publicity for the credit union. Runner-up Paula Mickelson recruited DJs from a Lloydminster radio station to promote her campaign. The local newspaper profiled Mickelson in a full-page article and she was interviewed by the city’s local TV station. At the close of the contest, November 2007, Walkiw, who had created a podcast, thank-you video and attracted more than 200 friends to her Facebook page, received the most votes and was declared the Young & Free spokesperson.

With its highly branded campaign, Common Wealth managed to generate a decent amount of success in the online medium, specifically within its targeted demographic: under 25-year-olds. By introducing a dialogue between brand and consumer, Common Wealth got consumers to pass back information to friends and colleagues, not only about the new account but about themselves, through social media marketing.

Social media refers to a broad spectrum of online communities ranging from blogs and podcasts to Internet sites like MySpace.com and Facebook.com. The latter dominates social media sites in Canada with 7.6 million members over 18 and another 1.7 million under 18. In other words, almost one-third of the population of this country is on Facebook.

David MacDonald, vice-president of consumer research at Environics Group in Toronto, says that while online users are generally younger, things are starting to change. “People online are very socially engaged,” says MacDonald. “They are in charge, they like to go out and do their own research and confirm their questions or find out about products and features and brands from circles that they otherwise wouldn’t have contact with. In a sense, social media is an expansion of word of mouth only it’s not face-to-face.”

The concept of combining social media marketing with non-web marketing is one whose time has come. Telus recently had over 100,000 downloads after it advertised its new Fish Bowl application on social media sites. The application allows users to customize a fishbowl and add fish, representing the friends included in their Telus “MyFaves” cellphone plan. “That was great for them because they had their brand and messaging in front of people who wanted it, downloaded it, and played it,” says Robert Jenkyn, vice-president of on-demand media at Media Experts in Toronto.

The ultimate goal of any social media marketing is to create a campaign that will spread from person to person, with very little advertising through traditional channels. The onus is then on the advertiser to create an interesting and engaging piece that people willingly view. Dove Evolution, a video showing how an average-looking woman could be transformed into a supermodel, scored 1.7 million views on YouTube and garnered dozens of international awards. The piece was delivered through YouTube only, costing the company virtually nothing to distribute.

On the flip side, the brave new world of social media is fraught with risks for those who don’t take the time to understand it. Joe Thornley of Thornley Fallis, a Toronto-based public relations agency specializing in social media, points to Molson Canadian’s Campus Challenge last November: Molson’s stunt of asking university students to post “party photos” on Facebook back-fired when consumers accused the brewery of promoting binge drinking. “Marketers have viewed social media tools as just another channel like television, radio or newspapers and as a consequence totally violated people’s sense of what’s right and what’s trustworthy,” says Thornley. “Whatever actual results that these campaigns may have received in terms of conversions or track-through to actual sales were lost in the black eye that the corporation got by going into this world and not understanding the cultural mores and observing them.

Common Wealth’s Mulligan spent a lot of time assessing the risk of venturing into social media. The damage to the brand was Mulligan’s biggest concern. “What if somebody takes some of the dialogue on the website down a path that is absolutely contradictory to our corporate mindset?” says Mulligan. “Every time you create a spokesperson, whether you are hiring Tiger Woods or somebody from a rock band, you have to worry about that because now it is out of your control. Those were the biggest risks and of course the risk that we don’t connect – that we are wrong. But of course we found that we were absolutely right and all of the pieces lined up accordingly.”

The results so far are impressive. The credit union has doubled its 25 and under membership base. Young & Free account deposits were worth more than $1.1 million in the first three months of the program. An estimated $200,000 in unpaid media was brought in by public relations. As well, at the three-month mark, the microsite had 17,270 unique visitors and 15,460 viewers had watched the YouTube videos.

“Normally you would take a marketing program and say this is how it will be and this is how we will measure it and this is when it ends and this is when it starts,” says Mulligan.

He doesn’t view Young & Free as a campaign; it’s more about changing the corporate DNA. “This is a living, breathing, ever-evolving social network that’s going to help define and shape how we are valuable to that group. It’s a very different approach.”