They're the Little Elves That Could

Santa's Helpers Nabbed 26.4 Million Visitors, Propelling OfficeMax's Seasonal Site Into the Digital Record Books

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NEW YORK ( -- Forget the Subservient Chicken, the Whopper Freakout and Monk-e-Mail. When it comes to digital campaigns, OfficeMax's ElfYourself has left them all in the dust.
Garden & Gun

A wealth of do-it-yourself elves got more buzz than a dearth of Whoppers.

Some 26.4 million people -- nearly one in 10 Americans -- this season visited the office-products company's holiday site that allows users to paste images of their faces onto dancing elves. That's up more than tenfold from last year, its first year in existence.

"It really is a digital phenomenon," said Anne Bologna, founding partner and president of Toy, New York, the agency that dreamed up the idea for the site and contracted digital content marketing firm EVB, San Fransisco, to bring it to reality. According to Ms. Bologna, if you add up all the time people spent on ElfYourself this holiday season, it totals 2,614 years. "There were 123 million elves created this year, up from 11 million last year," she said. "All we did was add more elves."

In fact, the website's metrics are all over the place. When it first came back online in October 2007, the website was ranked higher than 400,000 by Hitwise, an internet-tracking agency. By December, it ranked No. 55 among all websites. "The first month the site grew 99%, the second month 89% and the third 29%," said Hitwise Research Director Heather Dougherty. "It just popped each week. Over the course of November/December, their market share of internet users grew 508%."

According to Pete Blackshaw, exec VP of Nielsen Online Strategic Services, the site's active reach in December (i.e., how many of the 165 million active internet users that month made a visit) was 16%. That's 26.4 million people -- nearly one in 10 Americans. "They had a very nice echo effect from last year, and as far as buzz goes, pass-alongs on blogs were huge," said Mr. Blackshaw, whose company tracked the site's presence on blog posts, along with its not-so-closest competitor

But the real question is: How much help did the OfficeMax brand get from its silly little helpers? "That's always the danger with this kind of advertisement," Ms. Dougherty said. "They're cute, they're funny, but they're not necessarily related to the brand." In this case, however, OfficeMax came out a winner. Of the 20 most common search terms in the four weeks of December, Ms. Dougherty said, six of them included the words "Office Max," indicating that brand awareness had carried through.

For Bob Thacker, senior VP-marketing and advertising at OfficeMax, that was the whole point. "We were looking to build the brand, warm up our image. We weren't looking for sales. We are third-place players in our industry, so we are trying to differentiate ourselves through humor and humanization," he said.

It appears Mr. Thacker got what he wanted for Christmas: "Our goal was to double elf activity from what we'd gotten last year. The results were nearly 10 times that." That's with a budget Mr. Thacker said was less than the average cost of a TV ad, which runs between $300,000 and half a million dollars these days.

"The proof is we're still talking about it," Mr. Blackshaw said.

A wealth of do-it-yourself elves got more buzz than a dearth of Whoppers.

Here are the keys to viral success that can be learned from diminutive, sharp-eared men in tights.


"Personalization drives purchase behavior and affinity," said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP of Nielsen Online Strategic Services. "The biggest insight is how companies can capitalize on this personalization aspect, especially the beauty-care industry."


Hitwise Research Director Heather Dougherty said 40% of all visitors to ElfYourself were 55 or older. "You wouldn't expect viral marketing to really reach that demographic," Ms. Dougherty said. "It's a good lesson for marketers."


Bob Thacker, senior VP-marketing and advertising at OfficeMax, said the secret is respecting the consumer. "You are interrupting their life," he said. "All advertising is unwanted, so if you're going to crash the party, bring some champagne with you."

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