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Death To Banner Ads! Social Media Campaigns That Worked Without Them

What works in social media marketing? Klout, Wildfire, and Mr Youth reveal results from their most successful campaigns.

Within the soft science of social media marketing touchy-feely concepts often arrive package as metrics. There's "awareness," "buzz," "chatter," "conversation," "engagement," "influence" and "influencers," "reputation," "reach," "sharing," and "trust." Throw in "peer pressure," and you'd have terminology a child psychologist might use to describe your average Sweet Sixteen party. 

Nevertheless, brands and businesses of any size finally have a way to skip the purchase of lackluster, often annoying banner ads, but still get attention from the right consumers online. A bevy of social media marketing firms are selling them "word of mouth" (or "word of mouse") campaigns, using social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Combined, Facebook and Twitter count almost three-quarters of a billion users. Many of them spend inordinate amounts of time updating and perusing news feeds, sharing links, chatting, broadcasting and wading through thought nuggets there, each day. Get these social media users to spread positive words about your brand throughout their networks, and you have a cost-effective way to amplify your message.

Word of mouth campaigns are far cheaper than buying TV time, and if done correctly, can be more effective than traditional online advertising. (I have long argued that online banner ads should be expunged.) 

The question is how do these brands and agencies measure the effectiveness of their word-of-mouth endeavors? To find out, I asked three social media marketing firms—Klout, Wildfire and Mr Youth—to walk me through their most successful campaigns, what were they and why did they work.

Here are the marketers, and the campaigns they touted...


The Marketers: Today, Klout— backed with $10 million in venture capital— is edging toward 80 million users in its database. Each Klout user receives a score based on the number of people he or she reaches over Twitter and Facebook, and how much "amplification" his or her messages receive. Klout identifies "influencers" (people passionate about a given topic) and on behalf of their clients, sends the influencers freebies like tickets to a movie, packets of instant coffee, or a new kind of snack food, in hopes they will sing a product's praises over social media. Klout then tracks, sifts and interprets the resulting online chatter.

Mantra: "Influence."
Money quote: "We are counting on measurable, scalable 'word of mouth.'" —Joe Fernandez, CEO and cofounder

Clients: Audi, HP, Nike, Popchips, Starbucks, Universal Pictures. 
Campaign: To seed enthusiasm for last November's premiere of Disney's Tangled, Klout provided "advance screening kits" consisting of toys, T-shirts, and free tickets to 1,217 mommy bloggers, dads with a bent for media and entertainment, and animated film buffs. The kits and advance screenings raised awareness of the movie, and the 412 "influencers" who participated spread the word over Twitter, averaging 7.9 tweets each. This snowballed into 8,384 contributors providing more than 15,000 endorsements of the film. One mother tweeted, "Headed to a screening of Tangled. Kids are so excited." A dad wrote: "If you have kids, be sure to put 'Tangled' in your movies to see list during the holidays! We loved it!" The company reports that 95% of the tweets were, like these, positive, but even the 1,674 neutral tweets helped raise awareness. The campaign was designed for Twitter but there was the inevitable spillover to Facebook, generating an additional 340 "shares," 450 "likes," and 608 comments. Meanwhile bloggers weighed in with 19 posts related to Tangled; some even posted videos. In the end, Klout estimates that these 412 original influencers reached more than 1.3 million people and generated close to 40 million impressions. Since the campaign cost $50,000, that works out to about $1.25 CPM (cost per thousand), which is pretty cheap. 


The Marketers: Victoria Ransom was running an adventure travel business with Alain Chuard in November 2007 when Facebook launched fan pages. Seeing opportunity, they built their own application to promote a free mountain bike trip to Turkey, then messaged all their customers. This led to thousands of people engaging with the campaign and a large number of inquiries about other trips they offered. When other companies inquired about using their application they decided to hitch their wagon to social media campaigns and founded Wildfire Interactive Inc., in 2008. Today, Wildfire sells a software application that enables companies to create and run their own promotions—contests, giveaways, sweepstakes—via Facebook. The promotions help companies drive sales, and grow their fanbase online. 

Mantra: "Coupons."
Money quote: "Scarcity, urgency and ecommerce work very well together."—Victoria Ransom, cofounder and CEO
Clients:, PepsiCo, Red Bull, Sony Pictures, Unilever, Universal Music,
Campaign: Haute Look, recently acquired by Nordstrom, wished to increase its online fan base and turn fans into paying customers, so Wildfire pitched a coupon "instant win" game. Entrants had to become fans on Facebook to receive a special coupon—anything from 5% off, $10 off a $50 purchase, free shipping or in some rare cases $100 toward a $200 shopping spree. The campaign lasted just 48 hours and users had to redeem their coupon within two weeks. "This was a great way to create urgency," Ransom says. After they crunched the numbers, they found that 20% of the people who bought something through the campaign were first-time buyers, while an additional 20% were dormant buyers—people who hadn't purchased anything for a long time. The campaign, Ransom adds, generated a 300% return on investment for Haute Look.

Mr Youth

The Marketers: Founded in 2002 by then 27-year-old marketer Matt Britton (the New York Post would later dub him "a modern day Don Draper"), Mr Youth started out peddling word of mouth, social interactive, and experiential marketing campaigns targeted to young people. Today Mr Youth, which made Fast Company's 2010 Top 10 Most Innovative Companies list, eschews a one-size-fits-all approach to social marketing. "Objectives vary," explains chief growth officer at Mr Youth, Matt McRoberts. "A client just getting into social media might just want to get 100,000 to come to a page and like it. Then it's about getting them to do something." Or it might, he adds, involve coupons to drive a promotion or "face gating," which requires a user to visit a page to unlock the key to a reward.

Mantra: "Mobilization." 

Money quote: "It used to be about getting people engaged in community. Now it's about mobilization, getting people to do something."—Matt McRoberts, Chief of Brand Development
Clients: Dunkin' Donuts, General Motors, JetBlue, Microsoft, P&G, T-Mobile, Victoria's Secret.
Campaign: Why use Microsoft's Bing when Google is probably already your default search engine? Well, one reason could be social—to see what your friends are up to—which Microsoft tried to build into its engine from the ground up. Last holiday season Mr Youth created a campaign it hoped would show how Bing helps consumers make better, faster shopping decisions. A user entered two products she thought she might buy into two Bing search bars and the results were compiled side by side. Then a shopping squad, made up of shop-savvy friends, could weigh in with their opinions on which item she should buy. Each day she shared a search with friends, she was entered into a sweepstakes to win a $5,000 weekly drawing. According to the company, the Bing Holiday Shopping application generated more than 1.6 million visits, 3.4 million page views, and 126,944 people were asked to be part of a shopping squad on the Bing application. The average time on the app holiday application was 1.27 minutes and led to 4.2 million new searches through Bing.

Add New Comment


  • Veronika Harbick

    Some times I like to click or hover on ads that I come across that are engaging and exceptional just to let the agency know the did a good job. 

    99% of banner ads aren't social, but they can be effectively used to drive awareness of social initiatives that live elsewhere. I echo the sentiment in the comments here, just because these case studies didn't use banner ads doesn't mean other campaigns shouldn't.

  • Keith Whitmer

    Uh oh... look at all those banner ads to the right of this article. HA!  ; 7 ) >

  • Ashley Orr

    Adam, I agree. Online users are constantly inundated with so many different ads coming from every media source. This barrage of ads turns into white noise and causes ads to lose effectiveness. These three social media campaigns are great examples of how to think outside of the traditional marketing box and use "word of mouse" marketing through Facebook, Twitter and Bing to reach users, increase engagement and maximize return on investment.

    Ashley Orr | FSC Interactive

  • Reid Mitnick


    What do I see when I logon to Fast, banner ads? If they are so bad, how is Fast Company selling them at a $100 CPM??

  • Adam L. Penenberg

    Sorry, John, but I detest banner ads. In fact, I don't even see them. I think most web users feel this way. They are crappy, they get in the way, they smack of desperation by advertisers trying to reach people at a moment they are not in the right frame to be marketed to. They graffiti the Web and deleteriously affect our experience. Can't advertisers be more creative? Taking the same approach they did for magazines and newspapers for decades upon decades online is shortsighted. Something like a billion ads are displayed to Americans every quarter. Do you think advertisements can stick out amongst the noise? Look for a different way, and stop irritating the people you are trying to reach. If you do, you might get better results. So I'll applaud any marketing effort that relies on opt in mechanisms and don't get in the way of my web surfing.

  • Myles Younger

    I've got to agree with the spirit of John's comment and come to the defense of banner ads (aka "display ads"). Just because some companies have run successful social marketing campaigns doesn't mean that display ads are worthless. I think the author should read up on some of the modern targeting methods for display advertising...his attitudes towards banner ads seem to stem from a late 90s frame of reference. Because of newer targeting techniques, display ads can start to have social elements, and I don't just mean embedding a Twitter or Facebook feed into a banner ad. For example, retargeting lets the marketer establish a 1-to-1 connection with the viewer, thus opening a channel for a dialogue. Right now, that's not how most retargeting ads are executed, but it's certainly possible, and as more brands learn how to open up and build a relevant, 2-way marketing channel via display ads (in direct contrast to the "spray and pray" banner ad tactics of old), you'll see display advertising become just as "social" and dynamic as channels like Twitter, blogging, and Facebook.

    I also beg to differ that word-of-mouth marketing is fundamentally cheaper than display advertising or any other form of marketing. It's just that the hard costs of word-of-mouth marketing are smaller. The soft costs, meanwhile, are MASSIVE, mostly in terms of the time and patience it requires to build brand equity and grow relationships with customers and influencers (let alone the time required to invent clever social campaigns and hooks). You can point to outliers that have enjoyed runaway, unexpected viral success, but for the vast majority of businesses, both large and small, word-of-mouth marketing requires a lot of hard work and discipline. I think Zappos is a great example of this; years ago, the company dedicated itself to an insanely high standard of customer service as a way to get people to buy their shoes online, and over time they've incrementally reaped the benefits and developed legions of loyal customers and evangelists. But this did NOT come cheaply.

    And what Klout does is ultimately no different than what a PR firm does; Klout acts as an agent to reach out to industry influencers, tells a story or offers a compelling value prop, and crosses its fingers that some of it sticks and then gets spread around by said influencers. In the case of Disney's "Tangled," it was mommy bloggers, and in the case of a typical PR firm, it would be journalists and editors. And despite the immense power of good PR, I don't think anyone 20+ years ago would have screamed "Death to TV commercials -- all must bow at the throne of PR agencies!" (or if they had screamed those words, they would have been terribly, terribly wrong).

    Myles Younger

  • John Kottcamp

    While I don't applaud the success these campaigns have had, I think there is a big miss-connect between your title, Death to Banner Ads and the examples.  Each of the companies and campaigns you cite are using their specialized approach to build campaigns.  None of them used TV either and none of them used Email. Just because you use a certain media doesn't negate the value of other channels.

    You may also argue that neither TV or email are social in nature.  And I would agree.  But I would also say that banner ads are not social either, even though they may exist within a social network or application.

    At my company Blab, we have been getting some very good responses from Facebook banner ads.  But we recognize that they are advertising, not engagement vechicles.  They exist at the top of the relationship funnel and are not best suited for customer relationship campaigns.

    John Kottcamp, CMO Blab