Kam Rope, Senior Online Marketing Manager for Vail Resorts (NYSE: MTN), loves to test neat guerrilla marketing tactics.
Every year she dutifully keeps banner campaigns running and helps maintain and enhance the resort chain's Web sites. But her real passion is coming up with out-of-the-box ideas that will turn into viral winners. As long as the other campaigns are pulling well (and they do), her boss lets Rope have a small extra test budget to play with.
For example, one year Rope launched a site called Huge Ski Tour. Instead of Vail's fairly classy site design, it pulsated with 1970's colors and graphics. "It was a crazy idea, I developed it here myself with one person in the Web department. It had a ski fashion patrol, a sweeps contest, a Flash game with cartoon characters you could play...."
The site also had crazy luck -- a few days before Huge Ski launched, Vail native Ryan Sutter contacted Rope asking if she'd do him a personal favor and pop up a Web page for him because he was going to be on this reality TV show no one had heard of.
The rest was history. Rope didn't have a media budget, but she posted "Check out Ryan's site" on a few TV-fan message boards. Within 60 days the site had 200,000 unique visitors resulting in
$210,000 in sales of lift tickets and lodgings.
Winter 2003-2004 Rope was itching to try something new. Her big idea -- a Weatherbug-style desktop application she hoped would go really viral.CAMPAIGN
Rope kept development costs low by using content she already had on hand, such as a cartoon character, Trevor, from Huge Ski's game, fresh weekly photos from Vail's main site, and snow condition reports from Vail's own weather service.
Named "SnowMate", the application was designed to appeal to skiing fans who'd like to keep check on conditions, and perhaps daydream about upcoming trips from their offices. So the creative was a combination of:
o highly practical -- access to special travel and lift ticket deals, powder reports, and an events calendar.
o highly entertaining -- Trevor tapping on your screen with excitement when snowfall hit over a foot, fun photos, and virtual snowflakes building up on your screen to match real-world conditions.
Perhaps the hardest part of launching a desktop application is describing it, because consumers and office IT departments are scared of potential "spyware" problems. Plus the term "desktop application" just doesn't sound very enticing.
Rope got around the problem by not using the term at all. For example, her banner copy read:
Is it snowing?
Get daily snow reports, photos,
videos, travel deals & more
on your PC desktop!
And, her landing page copy explained SnowMate as, "Snow Alert Technology." Well, heck, what big ski fan wouldn't want that?
When the application was ready to launch, Rope placed links on various Vail sites, and emailed a note to consumers on the mailing list. She also wheedled her boss into allowing her a small media budget of $15,000 for banners.
"We generated 2.7 million impressions in March. We got a lot of bonus leverage by piggybacking onto our other buys at the time. I ran banners on SkiColorado.com, Powder Magazine and a few other ski verticals. I did all the creative myself."
Rope had high hopes, but hardly anyone else did. "When I proposed SnowMate internally everyone said, 'You'll only get a few thousand downloads. Is it really worth the time and cost?' We also got a ton of pushback from IT internally. They worried that people wouldn't download it due to firewalls and virus protection programs."
She set a rule that no consumer would ever be emailed an executable file, and anyone clicking on a banner would go to the landing page and not just start the download. This way everyone would hopefully know what they were getting into.
Rope's personal goal was for 35,000 downloads mainly from viral pass-along when SnowMate launched in January 2004.
Rope's expectations were completely wrong on two counts. Consumers adored SnowMate far more than expected. More than 55,000 people downloaded the application in the four months it was promoted. (And, only one person complained about a firewall problem.)
However, it didn't go viral. "We had a pass-along rate of 1,391 people." So, desktop apps can be a compelling direct offer, but folks don't tend to pass them to friends.
SnowMate generated $220,000 in measurable income from ticket and lodging sales, equaling roughly $4 per user. To put this in perspective, Rope's regular banner ads during the same time period generated 308,000 clicks and $2.8 million in revenues -- about $9 per click.
On the good side, SnowMate's value will continue to grow with time as more fans download it every year, and some keep it throughout the snow season. Banners are far more ephemeral.
-- Just over 50% of downloads kept SnowMate on their PCs for more than a week, most keeping it a month or more. So the application got a heavy initial "wipe" rate, but then steadied off with fans keeping it for long periods.
-- The average user clicked 75 times within the application (this may be higher next season when because the SnowMate will be available for the entire ski season and not just half of it.)Useful links related to this story:
Creative samples of banners, landing page, and site screenshots:
Link to page where you can download SnowMate for yourself:
AdTools Desktop Marketing - the vendor who developed SnowMate for Vail:
MarketingSherpa story on a similar desktop application idea tested by American Idol singer Kelly Clarkson:
MarketingSherpa Case Studies on how Weatherbug succeeds: