Big Marcom PR Payoff With Whack-a-Flack

This observer of the public relations scene found it hard to miss the many articles that heralded the recent launch of “Whack-a-Flack,” a cleverly disguised marcom PR play cloaked as an online variant of the old “Whack-a-Mole” video arcade game. Whack-a-Flack invites journalists to throw paper airplanes at PR people from their least favorite agencies as they pop up from their cubicles.

A few examples torn from the headlines:

“Is ‘Flack Whacking’ Good Public Relations?”
(http://www.nytimes.com) 10/2/00

“Flack-Attack E-Mail Campaign a Direct Hit”
(http://www.btobonline.com) 10/9/00

“E-Tractions Flack Attack, Web Marketing Firm Lets Loose on PR Firms”
(http://www.adweek.com) 10/2/00

By adroitly playing off the simmering antagonism between tech reporters and the hordes of pursuing public relations practitioners, online entertainment marketing firm e-tractions and its Boston PR firm, Sterling-Hager Inc., concocted what on the surface appears to be a classic publicity stunt that effectively drew in reporters to generate some bigtime buzz for the low-budget effort.

The disguise was most effective. Here is how it is introduced on the site:

    Tired of pushy PR flacks and overzealous young account execs huffing breathlessly over the virtues of the next Useless.com? Feeling bombarded by inane hype? Here’s your chance to give them a taste of their own… media kit.

    Choose the PR agency that you’d like to give some comeuppance to. Let us know why they’re being whacked. Then have at ’em with our Whack-a-flack Shockwave game.

“But as any good public relations professional knows, every trend, even a negative one, represents an opportunity to ‘position’ a company within that trend,” as The New York Times writer Seth Schiesel pointed out. Or, rather, use the trend as a springboard for a potent image-enhancing business-development campaign.

Into the Mole Hole

For the story behind the Whack-a-Flack story, I spoke with Michael Gauthier, CEO of e-tractions, who launched the company last February at the prestigious Demo 2000 conference.

Gauthier was brainstorming with Sterling-Hager to develop a way to “focus our expertise on ourselves as a marketing demonstration” and up popped the Whack-a-Flack concept with the goal of generating buzz, media involvement, and a means to reach e-tractions’ marketplace of senior executives at brick-and-mortar companies.

The game was developed quickly and launched in July via emails to a short list of 150 influentials that included those in the media industry, clients, and prospects. “We took our viral marketing approach, using the game itself as a tool to describe how, by example, such programs work,” said Gauthier, who is now preparing a weekly diary white paper that will soon be posted to the e-tractions web site press room.

Gauthier finds the results gratifying, having collected 3,000 email addresses, a mix of media and prospective clients, who opted in to receive future e-tractions communications, including the diary.

Stat Box

By the end of August, the Whack-a-Flack games had recorded 16,000-plus hits with 60 percent having completed the online questionnaire. By September 30, 25,000 hits were recorded, and by October 10, 40,000 hits were recorded.

The New York Times article alone generated 10,000 hits in one day, including a tremendous number from PalmPilot VIIs, which reflects a senior executive audience attuned to instantaneous replies.

“Interestingly, we’ve had discussions with several major PR firms that called to say, ‘We get it.’ The web can be a very effective promotion tool for agencies, but the major firms have had trouble figuring out the online ramifications. When they saw Whack-a-Flack, they immediately understood,” added Gauthier.

The majority of responses have come from consumer-goods companies, which are familiar with acquisition costs, ROI, and the sales process/channels. “They love that we can affect the ‘choke points’ on the sales cycle,” said Gauthier, whose firm charges from $20,000 to $50,000 for its viral marketing campaigns, which include building, hosting, and data tracking.

The key to the success of campaigns such as Whack-a-Flack lies in their entertainment value. “It’s a lot like TV or radio,” notes Gauthier. “You have to make the payoff worth the player’s while through an entertaining dialogue with an embedded marketing message. Entertainment can be a Trojan horse for marketing messages, and it appeals to a wide range of audiences.”

As to the role and value of public relations, Gauthier sees it as basically a trust investment. “I believe PR can be very effective as the front end of the sales process. Almost all of our business development is a result of PR, so as long as we are getting placements, we’re happy.”

So get out there in cyberspace and Whack-a-Flack for marcom’s sake.

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