Dumenco's Media People

Priceline Co-founder Twitters, Saves World

Marketing and Media Lessons From Twittermania

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When I mentioned Malaria No More in a recent column about Twitter -- So It's Official, Then: Ashton Kutcher Got Punk'd (Sorry, Twit!) -- I heard from Emily Bergantino, the organization's communications officer. Would I, she asked, want a guest response from Scott Case, the CEO of Malaria No More? Sure, but actually, I'd rather talk to the guy. Because Timothy "Scott" Case isn't your average charity chief. He is first and foremost a technologist and entrepreneur: His name is on dozens of U.S. patents, including some of the underlying works of Priceline.com, the "name your own price" travel agency where he was chief technology officer and co-founder. (Before that, he co-founded Precision Training Software, the company behind the first flight simulator for PCs.) And thus Malaria No More is not your average charity.

Scott Case
Scott Case
For this latest edition of Dumenco's Media People, a portion of my discussion (edited down from a lengthy conversation) with Scott Case:

Simon Dumenco: What I like about Malaria No More is that, given your background, you're obviously applying technological solutions and marketing principles to running a nonprofit.

Scott Case: That's kind of the DNA of Malaria No More -- it's all about looking at a major social issue, specifically, ending malaria deaths, from a business point of view, and we have taken that approach from the very beginning. How do you use the power of marketing and communications to make the case to Americans and others in the developed world that this is a big issue? And that, more important, we can do something about it and we can ultimately empower African families to protect themselves from something that is killing their children at the pace of 3,000 every day.

Dumenco: Well, let's just cut right to the power of marketing and communications, as you put it, specifically in regard to Twitter. Because we're having this conversation, of course, because of Ashton Kutcher's recent race to be the first Twitterer with 1 million followers, which he turned into a fundraising effort for Malaria No More. So, first, how did he get involved, or how did you involve him?

Case: Well, the other founders of Malaria No More are Peter Chernin [the outgoing president-chief operating officer of News Corp.] and a philanthropist named Ray Chambers, and between the three of us and the rest of our team, we are relentless in our pursuit of getting everybody we can to take on ending malaria in Africa. One of the relationships that Ray cultivated was with a woman named Sarah Ross who works for Katalyst Media, Ashton's production company. She actually used to work at Yahoo and now finds herself at Katalyst, and we were talking to her about how could we use new social media to get the word out, specifically about World Malaria Day. And Ashton got excited about the idea of, initially, could you get 100 influencers on Twitter to tweet about World Malaria Day -- about how, for as little as $10 [which goes to distributing bed nets] anyone could help an African family protect themselves from malaria. That sort of innocent discussion kicked off quite an impressive chain reaction.

Dumenco: Give me the metrics on the Twitter Effect.

Case: As a result of nearly ubiquitous "World Malaria Day" tweets, our website had more traffic in the month of April 2009 than in the previous 12 months combined. Millions of individuals were introduced to, and are now aware of, a disease that will probably never impact them directly.

Dumenco: Wow, that's great. OK, tell me, once Ashton was onboard, did you look at it as a freak marketing gift, a lightning strike, or is there kind of a case-study lesson here as well?

Case: There absolutely is. We've been experimenting, as have many others, with social media. We've been on MySpace and Facebook from the very beginning of our existence, we use lots of digital media to communicate to our donors and supporters. What Twitter demonstrated was using digital media to create almost a digital-medium event. In this world, can you use the power of the network in a way that you might have used it in getting, say, 100,000 people to march on Washington? This was kind of the virtual equivalent of that. Now the question for us is: For all those people who learned about malaria and what we can do to end it, how do we continue to engage them? How do you increase the depth of engagement? We look at this like you would any other product or service in regard to customer acquisition and retention.

Dumenco: The acquisition and retention issue is interesting because it makes me think of those Nielsen numbers that came out recently, about how 60% of people who sign up for Twitter stop using it by the next month. So as hot as it continues to be in the media, it stops behind hot for a lot of individual people. And that's true with various other social media, to a greater or lesser extent, which means marketers have to play a game of digital hopscotch -- always thinking, Where should we focus our efforts next? How do you figure out the balancing act?

Case: I don't know that it's so much hopscotch as it is we're all experimenting. With MySpace and Facebook and Twitter and whatever tools are to come, there's going to be a shakeout, just like back in 1995, 1996, when the first wave of the web was coming along. Look at AOL, look at Yahoo.

Dumenco: Right, and remember when CompuServe was hot?

Case: Yeah, there was a lot of experimentation. From an investment standpoint as a marketer, what makes the digital space so interesting is the cost of entry. For us to get our messages out on MySpace or a blog or Facebook, the messages are basically the same, the staffing is about the same. During something like the Twitter event, where you've got traction, the intensity in that channel obviously goes up, but at the same time we were still using our blog as a mechanism to answer questions and to engage consumers in greater depth, and we used our e-mail lists to push out information, and we updated our Facebook and MySpace pages as a mechanism to extend what was happening on Twitter.

Dumenco: It strikes me that as a technologist, you've got to be pretty metrics-obsessed. Especially given your background at Priceline, where you were watching a constant stream of reactions to pricing levels -- watching consumer behavior at a really granular level.

Case: We've got a great marketing and communications team that spends a lot of time on those metrics and is constantly trying to tweak them. A large percentage of our time is figuring out what else is happening in the world from a communications standpoint, like who can we partner with? You can see some of the stuff that we did with "American Idol," in 2007, 2008, as one illustration. We've also done a project with FC Barcelona, which is one of the premier football [European soccer] clubs in the world, that included all of their players going on the field wearing T-shirts demonstrating their commitment to ending malaria and getting that all over TV. The Patron Highcroft Racing team has done a program with us called Miles to End Malaria. And in those cases, you've got a win-win for the partnership because they're getting something that positions them differently than other sports clubs or racing teams.

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The (brief) conclusion of my interview with Scott Case will appear on AdAge.com on Tuesday. In Part 2, we talk about what Twitter can do to avoid the spread of misinformation about global health crises, like the recent swine-flu frenzy in the Twitterverse.

In the meantime, please visit the donation page of Malaria No More and consider making a donation. Ten bucks for a bed net can protect a child and his or her family as they sleep, when most malaria-spreading bites occur.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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