An Infectious Marketing Strategy
Ernst & Young forms a partnership for cost-effective online marketing.
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Viral marketing is a handy technique for capitalizing on the resources of your partners and customers. You rely on your network to bring potential clients, whom you may never have otherwise been aware of, to your attention, and you to theirs.

Ernst & Young's entrepreneurial services practice put this idea to work recently. Working with MindBlazer, a Charlotte, N.C.-based provider of Webcasting products and CRM services, the consulting firm created a multimember partnership with six other expert firms to deliver a series of Webcasts called "Winning strategies for Fast Paced Ventures."

This free, live, online event offered entrepreneurs education on six key subjects that are major driving forces to growing companies. Because every partner provided funding, expertise and an extensive mailing list, the entire group gained access to a maximum number of potential clients at a much lower investment.

The result: By taking advantage of the marketing network of all seven participating firms, this viral marketing effort brought them all to the attention of hundreds of potential clients.

The goal was to pull in 200 viewers to the live event, but they actually had more than 360 registrants. And, since the live version ran in November, MindBlazer has gathered data on more than 1,000 visitors to the event archives, and that number continues to grow as each partner promotes the archived content as a value-added tool for clients at their Web sites.

Sponsors Bring Dollars

Ernst & Young needed an aggressive "go to market" strategy to capture the attention of small companies with vigorous growth plans. They wanted to reach out to CEOs, establish themselves as the "go to" firm for entrepreneurs and increase demand for their professional services. Traditional seminars and literature weren't enough. The idea of Webcasts appealed to the group, not only because they could reach a global audience live online, but because the presentations could then be archived at the Web site for use by customers and personnel on an as-needed basis for months following the initial event.

"The ability to archive the presentations was critical in our choice to work with MindBlazer," says Bryan Pearce, Ernst & Young's national director of entrepreneurial services. When they planned the program, Ernst & Young's intent was primarily to drive clients to the archives for just-in-time education on an as-needed basis. The live event was like a kick-off to showcase the content. "We expected more mileage from the archives then we did from the live event."

However, because the live event would allow interaction between speakers and participants, it became a valuable part of the content building. Each Webcast included a Q&A segment that was recorded and included in the archives. It added valuable content to the sessions because it captured feedback on topics of crucial interest to the core audience, he says.

Ernst & Young and MindBlazer targeted six critical challenges for growing companies, including raising capital, attracting and retaining the best team, and protecting intellectual property. Each issue would be the topic of one 60-minute Webcast and would include video clips of existing customers, PowerPoint slides, speakers, live Q&A sessions and access to additional documents and Web sites that participants could visit or download during the event.

To spread out the cost of delivering the Webcasts to increase the viewership and to add authority to the topics, they recruited six high-profile co-sponsors, including law firm McGuireWoods, Carolina Financial Group and the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurship Leadership, tying their expertise to each of the topics at hand. Each sponsor paid $50,000 to participate in the program, bringing their own subject matter experts and client lists to the table. Ernst & Young, as the leader, invested $100,000.

"It was a non-competitive partnership that allowed each partner to market their expertise to the audiences of all six Webcasts," says Cindy Praeger, vice president of strategic marketing at MindBlazer.

"Because part of the cost was underwritten by each co-sponsor, and considering all of the content and expertise they provided, we got a good bargain," Pearce says. And, he adds, the cross marketing potential was an important part of the deal. "We got access to a number of clients that have no relationship to Ernst & Young." And the relationship building between co-sponsors adds further benefit. "Business erodes from these kinds of relationships."

In exchange for the financial and intellectual investment, each sponsor got their own microsite, built by MindBlazer, where clients could register for and view the live event and later access the archives in an environment customized to the look and feel of each sponsor's Web site. They each also received contact information on everyone who viewed any Webcast through their site, as well as the information on every participant who viewed their title Webcast at one of the partner sites. Ernst & Young, as the host, received information on every viewer of every Webcast at every site.

Spreading the Word

With the partnership in place, content was created and a marketing program was launched. MindBlazer took the mailing lists from each sponsor and created separate campaigns using HTML e-mails and Radical Mail--e-mail promotions with Flash messages embedded in them which, research shows, have a 20 percent forward rate, Praeger says. MindBlazer also conducted after-hours telemarketing promotions, leaving messages on the voicemail of potential viewers.

"We worked closely with the co-sponsors and MindBlazer to build an audience," Pearce says. "And we had good success."

Beyond MindBlazer's efforts, Ernst & Young and many of the sponsors added their own efforts to lure additional participants to the event. Ernst & Young did internal promotions encouraging staff to attend and discuss it with existing clients.

Co-sponsor McGuireWoods, who hosted the intellectual property topic and co-hosted the segment on building and retaining the best team, ran print ads in four target markets on the East Coast, says Jeff Hay, partner and co-head of the firm's emerging growth and technology division based in Charlotte, N.C. "We didn't know how many people would come," he says of the live event--statistics later showed that they had 340 registrants for the intellectual property segment and 510 for the team-building segment.

In fact, according to Hay, like Ernst & Young, the law firm was more interested in the value of the archives as a marketing tool than the live event itself, he says, but they were pleased with the size of the initial audience.

To make sure the content kept busy viewers' attention once they arrived, MindBlazer put the sponsors' subject matter experts through an intensive two-day "content optimization boot camp," teaching them how to deliver compelling presentations in a Webcast environment and brainstorming additional tools and visuals, such as footage from clients, to keep the content rolling.

They also made sure the partners weren't just delivering product information with talking heads. "You have to give value-added content to achieve this kind of objective, rather than just product information or a sales pitch," Praeger says. "It shows you are ready to serve the client and that you understand their needs."

According to feedback from viewers compiled by Pearce's group, one of the most valuable parts of the Webcasts was the related documents and links included with every segment. For example, in the intellectual property segment, viewers can download templated documents and use them immediately in their own business, Pearce says.

Once the live event was complete, MindBlazer broke each topic into 10 to 20 three-to-five minute chunks and stored them in archives at each partner's site. Today, viewers can go to any one of the partner sites and quickly access only the segments pertinent to their immediate interests.

According to statistics on use of the live and archived content, visitors on average spend 10 and a half minutes viewing content, and each viewer visits an average of three different segments, Praeger says.

Ernst & Young is just beginning to take advantage of the growing contact list compiled through the Webcasts, and Pearce says he's pleased with the information they've gathered so far. He expects to keep the archives up for 12 months, with some updates done as needed, and hopes to do more Webcasts in the future. "It was a great learning experience."

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