Reaching young moms is a priority for Rubbermaid, as is engaging them in a social setting online. But the 70-year-old housewares company was wary when social networking site BigTent came calling.
The problem for Rubbermaid is that BigTent is a social networking site with a twist. It's an online community where women can join groups centered on any number of interests -- from exercising to country music to parenting -- that marketers can access for a price. For example, a publisher can make a deal with a woman who runs a book club to offer free books to her members, and then monitor their feedback. All members are made aware that they might be marketed to when they join one of the site's groups.
Big Tent proposed that Rubbermaid do a kitchen makeover for Leanne Ely -- a nutritionist and author who leads one of Big Tent's most popular groups, Saving Dinner. Ely would then blog about the experience and offer Rubbermaid coupons to her 50,000 readers. Jim Deitzel, manager of e-marketing and brand communication for Rubbermaid, said he was intrigued by the idea, and figured it was worth a try for the money it would cost (in the low five figures, according to BigTent).
As long as it was obvious that Rubbermaid wasn't trying to pass this off as an unpaid endorsement.
"I wanted to be really sure that whatever they did, it was very clear that this was a paid sponsorship campaign," Keitzel said. "I did not want it to come across as, 'Oh this lady just happens to be making a kitchen makeover with Rubbermaid products.'"
Without having much experience in "paid" social media, Deitzel arrived at a set of targets based on the amount of money Rubbermaid was spending and the size of the audience: 250 coupons downloaded from BigTent, and 500 links to Ely's makeover blog.
"They did the deal with us and then we kind of subcontracted with Leanne," Donna Novitsky, CEO of BigTent, said. "We told all of the BigTent members about it, and Leanne also told her extended community, even those who are not on BigTent, about it so we could get as broad a reach as possible."
It would have been difficult to mistake the resulting campaign for something other than a paid sponsorship. For two weeks, from August 31 to September 11, Ely blogged about retooling her kitchen with Rubbermaid products. She began by showing "before" pictures of her cabinets, drawers and pantry, then one by one posted "after" pictures that showed how much more organized they were thanks to Rubbermaid's containers.
She frequently encouraged the 50,000 members of her group to download a $1 Rubbermaid coupon, and to enter a contest to win $100 worth of Rubbermaid products. She consistently thanked Rubbermaid for its help.
The results far surpassed the targets. Nearly 1,000 consumers downloaded the coupon and 2,500 people linked to the blog. Rubbermaid also walked away with dozens of comments submitted by readers about its products and the blog (the comments were not visible to the blog's readers).
Deitzel deemed the campaign a success, and said he might even do it again depending on the size of his budget and the other options available to him at the time. He said BigTent was "easy to work with" and recommended the site for anyone looking to do paid social media outreach. He even said that his fears that consumers would think Rubbermaid was trying to pull a fast one were assuaged.
Still, don't ask him to call it a real grassroots social networking campaign.
"It was advertising," he said. "I really tried to think of it as advertising and not social media. But in the end people were aware of what it was, and that's what matters."
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Douglas Quenqua is a journalist based in Brooklyn, NY who writes about culture and technology. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New York Observer, and Fortune.
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