Fortune 500 series: How OfficeMax uses social media

OfficeMax is facing similar economic woes that other big businesses face, however the company is still focused on continuing the social programs it started testing out in 2006
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

"Social media can change your business!"

"You need a social media strategist!"

"Social media can save you money!"

Those are just three of the primary claims I've been hearing over and over and over again since I started following social business trends. Are they true? Sure. Are they false? Sure. The definitive answer is, "It depends on your business."

While there are a whole slew of case studies on Internet-based businesses who have grown their businesses or marketing programs through social networking and social technologies, the larger company case studies are just starting to eek out. I decided to help it along, not by exactly doing case studies, but taking a look at Fortune 500 companies who are implementing social programs, and getting their first-hand take on how those programs are shaping their business.

How OfficeMax uses social media
I started with Bob Thacker, senior vice president of marketing and advertising for OfficeMax. OfficeMax is facing similar economic woes that other big businesses face, however the company is still focused on continuing the social programs it started testing out in 2006. I spoke with Thacker about these programs, future marketing plans, and even social talent hiring practices.

Q. [Jennifer] Tell me about how your team uses social media to build the OfficeMax brand.

A. [Bob] Marketing is all about change. There’s a saying that “if you don’t create change, change will create you.” It’s a great thought. I’m continually open to new ideas and new media and new approaches and new methodologies. At OfficeMax, we’ve embraced social media and incorporated it into our marketing strategy to reach today’s digital consumer through humor, entertainment and personalization. Social media marketing today is about having conversations with consumers in a fun, rewarding manner that they choose to engage in and share.

Q. When considering new social media strategies, what is your first move…To hire? To invest? To seek out market data?

A. As social media marketing opportunities evolve, we are constantly evaluating and seeking new ways to become part of the consumer conversation. We discuss new social media strategies among our team and will try them out first-hand to determine if it’s a good fit for a present campaign or something we may keep in our back pocket. At OfficeMax, we’re unconventional, always testing new waters, and not afraid to take chances. A saying I often use, which applies to our social media strategy is, “If you’re going to crash a party, bring a bottle of wine,” and by that I mean if you’re going to be a party crasher, like advertising, then make the experience better for people – help them, inspire them, enlighten them, entertain them, amuse them, delight them, bring them something that makes the time they spend with you a rewarding experience. Once we decide upon the strategy, we seek the best industry partner to bring this concept to life.

Next: What's a recent social success? -->

Q. What's a recent social media promotion that has worked for you?

A. One great example is our back-to-school “Penny Pranks” campaign where we developed 11 hidden camera videos in support of our one penny school supplies promotion. We set out in New York City with improv comedian, Matt McCarthy, to find out exactly what one can buy in today's economy with nothing but pennies. Using hidden cameras, McCarthy attempts to purchase everything from a used car to a steak dinner with pennies. More often than not, he is turned down with surprising reactions, which ranged from quizzical bemusement to -- in the case of the deli owner -- complete outrage. Yet, a carriage driver in Central Park actually accepted four thousand pennies ($40) in exchange for a ride. The eleven “Penny Prank” videos were then posted on YouTube and have been viewed collectively over 2.5 million times. Users rated the “Penny Prank” videos with 4.5+ stars, and thousands of people have posted comments to each video. “Penny Pranks” is a great example of using social media to reach consumers with compelling, humorous content they seek and pass along.

Q. Do you have specific team members dedicated to social media or is this integrated into your existing marketing structure?

A. Our team is comprised of diverse talents and many are social media savvy frequently engaging with applications like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, etc. Thus, we do a lot of the social media investigation internally prior to finding the right industry partner to bring a social media concept to life.

Q. How important is it to have someone who focuses entirely on social media?

A. Social media is still in a fairly premature state and has so much evolution and advancement ahead. As consumers continue to adopt a more digital lifestyle, I foresee this only growing in importance as part of the marketing mix, and I imagine having someone dedicated to a brand’s social media communication is in the not-so-distant future, if not already.

Q. How do you measure the ROI of your social media programs?

A. As the space is being defined, so are the measurables attached to social media. Today, the web delivers a wonderful abundance of trackable metrics, which we find quite useful when determining the value of our social media marketing programs. Yet, it’s important to realize the importance of metrics varies depending on the social media application. For example on Facebook, membership and user-postings are important. Whereas on YouTube, video views and user comments have higher-value. At its core, social media enables a brand to engage with its audience on their level and terms, and its success is defined by the amount and level that users take part in the content provided and pass along.

Next: Social media adoption drivers -->

Q. What has driven your adoption of social media?

A. We started to pay attention to social media as the space really started to take off and new blogs and social media applications were popping up left and rights. Our team was excited about incorporating social media into our marketing mix and embraced the opportunity for two-way communication. Social media makes brands more accountable, which we believe is a good thing, and encourages more creative, compelling content that consumers want to experience.

Q. How do you recommend doing that?

A. One saying I like to use is, “Don’t make ads, make news.” An ad is an interruption in someone’s life. An ad is an uninvited guest. People don’t look forward to advertising, unless it’s the Super Bowl. Other than that, people aren’t watching TV, surfing the internet or reading the paper for its ads. The ads are party crashers. So when I say, “Don’t make ads, make news,” I’m saying develop content that’s compelling and exciting. Create advertising that is fun. Create advertising that people choose to experience and talk about.

Q. You already gave one great example of how your team has used social media for branding. What is one social attempt that you feel confident translated into a big win for OfficeMax?

I would have to say OfficeMax’s annual holiday “Elf Yourself” campaign developed into an incredible “WIN” as a result of social media. For the past two holiday seasons, OfficeMax has launched a digital entertainment initiative at ElfYourself.com that enables users to create free custom holiday e-greetings by uploading photos to dancing elves and recording a personal message through a toll-free number, which they can send to friends and family.

During the 2007 holidays after six weeks, “Elf Yourself” attracted a booming number of visits – 193 million – and hit the bull’s eye of viral success – it became social media endorsed and seeped into popular culture. Thousands of blogs including TBS Daily Flog, The Hill’s Blog and Mashable posted holiday e-greetings that spread like wildfire. Users started posting “Elf Yourself” images on Flickr and Photobucket, and uploading user-generated videos to YouTube and Vimeo. Fans added ElfYourself.com to Digg, Mixx and StumbleUpon and posted tweets to their e-greeting on Twitter. Social media embraced the “Elf Yourself” concept, endorsed it and readily shared it among online communities, which turned this campaign into a digital phenomenon that attracted millions, set a new viral marketing record and landed a considerable “win” for OfficeMax.

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