The senior prom next month at Cupertino High School in Cupertino, CA, won’t be the usual coming-of-age bash where 18-year-olds get decked out in fancy dresses and tuxes and go a little crazy on the dance floor. This year, seniors will attend a SuperProm, a $100,000 affair the students earned by receiving the most online votes in a nationwide contest produced by Dell.
And just as this prom will be one for the yearbooks, the effort that went into it by the experiential marketing team at Dell is one for the textbooks, a case study bringing to life the latest trend in event marketing—the marriage of online and offline. The program, which bounces a target audience from the digital realm into live events and then back online again, is leveraging a new “experience extended” philosophy. The strategy is being called an evolution by Dell. And the kids in Cupertino, well they call it a dream come true.
The irony isn’t lost on anyone either, in that Cupertino, situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, is home to many high-tech companies, including the global headquarters of Dell arch rival Apple.
The high school and college student demographic is a critical target for computer makers, and the competition among Dell, Apple and other brands to win their business is stiff. According to Dell’s own research, 62 percent of high school seniors will purchase a computer before they go off to college. Others will purchase one once they’re on campus.
New event marketing programs are all part of the company’s supercharged push to ignite the highly coveted college purchase channel—and use all completed purchase cycles to fuel lifetime computer transactions. Also, the brand of computer students buy actually influences the university’s purchasing decisions. “What students are used to using and taking to school with them is very much impacting what that university wants to buy,” says Amy Tennison, project manager for Dell University, a program that helps students and universities manage their IT needs. “The university wants to make sure it purchases something the students are happy to use but that also works for their school IT needs. If students are leaning toward any particular manufacturer, the institution might also lean that way. That’s why we want to be the one they are using.”
And it doesn’t stop there. The computer students use in college is often what they will most likely continue to use the rest of their lives, she says. The same with businesses. “If you have an employee base that is comfortable on one platform, as a company you might merge to that line,” Tennison says. “Students could then impact every other segment as they grow older and [enter] those new segments. To some degree it is a battle to see who is going to win.”
Dell for years employed on-campus brand ambassadors as mini-sales people out in the field to demo product and solicit students at tables set up at orientation and in the bookstore. At times, they even created their own events in dorm rooms or slid information under doors and placed it on tabletops in cafeterias.
“They brought to it a relevancy of how students and even faculty on a campus might use the technology, because typically with this audience it’s not so much about the technology as the experience they have with it,” says Kelly Williams, senior manager of Dell University and Employee Purchase Program (EPP) marketing at Dell.
“The campus reps were able to take their own experiences and say, ‘Hey, look, this is what I do with the system, this is what I do with the software, this is how I integrate it into my life.’ It was predominately about being face-to-face.”
This year, seeking a higher level of engagement with the students, Dell took that battle for students’ mindshare to the land of the computer itself—the digital realm. “We wanted the program to be bigger, but the way that it was, it couldn’t be,” Williams says. “It couldn’t scale as a physical, tabling type of campaign. We understood that the students weren’t really paying attention in that environment. They are really going on about their lives, and more of their experience is migrating to the digital realm in terms of time spent.”
Thanks to the experience extended strategy, Dell is reaching the students where they live—online—via 170-plus tech-savvy “Digital RAs” on campuses throughout the U.S. These DRAs communicate with fans for about an hour daily on one of Dell’s 50 state-specific Facebook pages and on Twitter accounts about local happenings, parties and events like March Madness along with Dell-oriented content, new offers, discounts and events like SuperProm. Much of the content, created centrally by Toronto-based handling agency Mosaic Experiential Marketing, can be locally tailored. The DRAs also do face-to-face campus promo work, but not as much as they had in the past.
“By bringing the DRAs into the digital realm, it was not only being able to then join in a more casual way the experiences that were being had, but to extend the reach, because for as much as the reps evolve a community on the campus that they attend, they actually have a community that extends way beyond that,” Williams says. “They have all of their former friends from their hometowns and friends at other schools, so it was an opportunity to let them expand.”
The DRA extension ties into Dell’s Custom Life promotional platform, which capitalizes on what the company has stood for since its inception: tell us what you want, what processor, what speed, what memory, and we will build it for you.
“At the end of the day, Gen Y is about pulling people into their own personal experiences,” Williams says. “What are they doing everyday? They are posting on their Facebook pages, talking to everyone about what is going on every minute. Custom Life is the umbrella and the plugging together of our efforts to communicate, but to communicate within the ‘custom life’ of the student. It’s the wrapper for all the promotions and opportunities to interact that we are creating.”
SuperProm is the first of four efforts this year that will push Dell’s digital strategy onto a live event platform. Students submitted 60-second videos explaining why their high school should win the prom, a customizable experience in which they get to choose among options for the celebrity dj, chic décor, food and more valued in total at $100,000, paid for and thrown by Dell. The high school with the second highest number of votes received a $10,000 check to put toward its prom.
Individual grand prizewinners for the video with the most votes from the winning school and second place runner-up receive a prom night package including limo service, a $500 Visa gift card and a Dell Studio 15 laptop. A third prize scholarship was awarded to the most creative video submission as judged by MTV correspondent Chris Ryan.
From Jan. 25 to Feb. 28, students created and submitted videos to superprom.com, then solicited votes via YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and blogs. Dell encouraged the students to update the content on their websites and blogs and keep their fellow students in the loop about their school’s standing in the contest.
“SuperProm gave students a reason to want to interact with Dell, and through the conversations they were having with their peers on Facebook and Twitter they were able to post their video to try to get as many votes as they could,” says Ed Slavin, senior vp at Mosaic.
The videos ranged from simple outright pleas for the prom because of school budget cuts to Cupertino’s winning entry, a 60-second montage of its students and their adopted school in Kenya. In 2006, during its freshman year, the class formed Kenya Dream, a project in which more than 90 percent of the students pledged to support the Nthimbiri Secondary School in Meru. Instead of putting money raised by selling t-shirts and other fundraisers toward their junior and senior proms, the students used the funds to help the Kenyan school upgrade its facilities. The students have raised $25,000, with an additional $25,000 donated by the Rotary Club of Cupertino. Their goal, to raise $100,000 by June, is now closer to reality, since all prom tickets and proceeds will go toward the project.
During the final two weeks of the contest, the students rallied nonstop for votes, camping out in shops and the library and sending messages on social networking sites. Local news stations helped spread the word. Even other Cupertino schools rallied in support of their traditional rival, throwing their votes to Kenya Dream.
The race was tight, with Cupertino among the top three contenders throughout the contest, along with schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the winner was kept under wraps until a Dell representative traveled to the school with the announcement. In all, 78 schools competed.
Cupertino’s winning video garnered 32,000-plus votes, the second-place finisher received 30,000 and third place just over 29,000. The Dell Lounge Facebook page gained more than 18,000 new fans, creating a massive extension from a prom that benefits only one school. Even founder Michael Dell took notice—and tweeted his congratulations to Kenya Dream.
SuperProm is the first of a steady flow of Dell messaging and promotions this year utilizing the experience extended strategy. “[We’re] taking the offline experience of working with a brand and extending it online with potential consumers where they continue the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, then pushing them back to offline,” says Mosaic president Aidan Tracey.
The DRAs lie at the heart of all the back and forth between online and offline worlds, keeping the conversation moving and providing the spark that ignited the viral brushfire surrounding SuperProm.
“When you trace it all back, it started with a core idea, which is how do we use the same rules of event marketing that have been around for 20 years—deploy a brand ambassador to engage a consumer in a dialogue about a product—but do that digitally,” Tracey says. “We built a digital brand ambassador model, we deployed the model with a great concept, the concept then attracted consumers, the consumers then spread it to the media, and that’s how the viral growth happened.”
Next up, the W3 (Whoever, Whatever, Wherever) Flyaway contest, launched March 31 that dangles a trip for one student and a friend to a musical event of their choice this summer courtesy of Dell and Windows 7.
“Before the contest started, we teased it. We said, ‘Hey, are you interested in music? What types of music are you interested in? We might have a contest coming up that might be perfect for you,’” Tennison says. “Then after we launched the contest, we teased it, so they come back to the site. And we will do a lot of post-promotion, too, about the winners, where they went and the type of experience they had.”
Another effort, Residents Reno (short for “renovation”), which will take place in June and August, is a pimp-my-dorm- room spin in which students win room makeovers by professional designers and builders.
“It all falls back under the tenets that we require for all our contests—creating promotions designed by students for students and made possible by us,” Tennison says. “We really want to bring to them these totally customized types of opportunities that they couldn’t otherwise just pay for themselves.”
Third and fourth quarter will see a program similar to SuperProm. A summer program is still being planned but should incorporate social engagement tactics as well.
It all adds up to a steady supply of programs for the DRAs to talk up and connect with peers and drive them to a live experience. “That’s the key to everything that we are doing,” she says. “In no way do we see this as a pure transactional play. We see it as a way to engage with students, and knowing that we are trying to engage in conversations with students we need to have a really good mix of both transactional and relationship-building content to increase brand relevancy and ultimately lead to future purchase intent but not necessarily a sale today, which is a big change from previous years.”
So, it’s all about forming relationships now in hopes of a future ROI. “As a company, we really don’t have a choice,” Tennison says. “We need to make sure we are relevant to students and I think our group has uniquely been able to not look at immediate sales but look more at one year or even two years out and say, how can we today affect future purchase intent.”
For Dell, the online strategy was an educated risk. “Historically, our connection with this population has been through their parents,” Williams says. “But SuperProm was an opportunity to have the connection directly with them because over time they’ve become more and more in control of their own needs and the products and services that they use. They are bigger influencers than they have ever been. So it becomes more important to ensure that you have the right reputation from day one.”
The risk has paid off in terms of page views, votes, fans and the level and length of engagement with this often-fickle audience. “One of the things that you deal with in the online world is it’s a flutter; two seconds is all you get,” Williams says. “In the case of SuperProm we had minutes, and in the world of the Internet that is huge. That amount of engagement is rare, regardless of the age of the population, but probably even more rare in the youth audience.”
The online effort delivered results that were visible and trackable from day one. “From the start, the wish was to have an opportunity to watch it ripple, and we could see it in that virtual world ripple from the students’ entry to the amount of buzz going across the various social media and ultimately ending out in the general media in newspapers and broadcast media and other places and then coming back,” Williams adds.
But whether SuperProm leads to computer sales remains to be seen. “We’d like to think so,” Williams says. “That’s one of the big questions about social media—does it really translate into anything? The way we look at it is a lot of things don’t have that direct attribution, but favorable views in terms of what you are supporting and positive commentary, you can’t deny the power of that. If you ask any customer set what is in their top three in terms of where and how they make their decisions, word of mouth is always up there. And that’s what social media is. Positive commentary about your brand and your company has tremendous value. We’ve got fabulous products and services but that does not have to be the conversation.” EM