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Case study: A marketing icon's Facebook journey

Case study: A marketing icon's Facebook journey James Wisdom

When Aflac decided to expand its horizons by branching into new media, two things were certain. First, it is a solid company with a great corporate icon. That's the good news. Second, it needed a plan to reach the millions of people whose exposure to information increasingly comes through social media and the internet. That was the challenge.

And what a challenge it is. With the Aflac Duck, the company has a marketing rock star that can sit comfortably at both the pop icon table and in the board room. The Duck has personality, verve, and is more than ready to bring his pluckiness to places he has never been before.

There is no debating the effectiveness of the Aflac Duck campaign in traditional media. Surveys show that more than 93 percent of Americans are aware of Aflac. Yet far fewer can tell you that Aflac is a leading provider of guaranteed, renewable insurance in the U.S., that its policies are different from major medical, or that it gives you cash benefits when you're injured or become sick. Aflac's new CMO, Jeff Charney, has made clear his mandate to transform brand identification into brand education by using both new and traditional media.

In terms of social media, Aflac had been relatively absent from the conversation, leaving customers without a venue to tell their stories, and the company without a way to participate in the conversation. There had been ongoing discussions for years about bringing the brand into the social space, but for every supporter, there was an equal number of differing opinions on what to do and how to do it.

Aflac CIO Gerald Shields brought in Josh Bernoff, author of "Groundswell," who reinvigorated the discussion around which venues to utilize, including blogs, RSS, wikis, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.

Facebook emerged as an early match for the Duck, because it was a fast-growing community that had gained traction well beyond a limited audience. Around this time, The Zimmerman Agency came in to pitch a wide variety of campaigns, including print, outdoor, and Facebook. The agency's perspective of the Duck on Facebook brought the idea to life, and the Zimmerman team's grasp on the execution indicated it would be the right partners.

A "duck's-eye view"
The initial production went like many creative productions do: crafting concepts, stories, and guidelines for the brand. There were lots of great ideas and a few stinkers, but on the whole everyone loved the idea of a "duck's eye view" of the world. We soft-launched the Duck's Facebook page a few days before announcing it at a field sales conference, then watched as the fan base took off far beyond our (and Zimmerman's) expectations.

Nearly 120,000 fans joined the Aflac Duck Facebook fan page in the first 12 weeks. In fact, the Aflac Duck's fan page was the No. 1 weekly gainer for pages with less than 1 million users for two weeks following its launch in April, according to the Inside Facebook blog. More importantly, the site receives more interaction per fan than any of the top 10 fan pages on Facebook, including those of pop icons Ashton Kutcher and Miley Cyrus.

Consumer engagement has been genuine, with many Facebook fans sharing micro-testimonials, comments, experiences, and observations about Aflac. The most motivating part for me has been the testimonials coming from customers whose financial futures have been preserved by Aflac's help in hard times. One woman posted that she would have lost her house when she was diagnosed with cancer if it had not been for her Aflac policy.

As every marketer knows, there is no stronger praise than third-party endorsements, and the Duck's fans are truly engaged. The Aflac team works hard to keep things fun, while at the same time reminding consumers that Aflac is a product that can be a wonderful asset to protect one's financial future. The Duck's fans interact with the Duck and one another, all taking part in a fun conversation.

But leaping into unchartered territory is never without risk. Prior to Facebook, the Aflac Duck's vocabulary consisted of a single word -- "Aflac" -- and that strategy had worked in the past. But new media, and Facebook in particular, have presented new platforms for the Duck to express itself. So, does the Aflac Duck hunt and peck, or type with wings?

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We work very hard to stay true to the Aflac Duck as he has been defined in the past, while defining his personality going forward. Sure, he's spirited, visionary, big-hearted, sure-footed, and empowering, and he always has you under his wing, but he also loves his mom, is amused by the antics of other birds on YouTube, and admires the strength of the Aflac Cancer Center kids.

So how are we moving the Duck forward in social media? Very carefully. Success means straddling a fine line between lighthearted quips and corporate messaging. Too many flippant updates may insult fans, while excessive marketing may trigger abandonment. Zimmerman recommended a ratio of marketing posts to entertainment posts so the Duck could walk that fine line on Facebook. While we keep an eye on Zimmerman's  recommendation, there's always healthy discussion between what defines a post as "marketing" or "entertainment," especially when our goal is to do both at the same time, just as television has moved to product placement and co-branding.

We watch the responses of our fans, both qualitatively, in their degree of response and tone of comments, and quantitatively on Facebook's Insights tool. We try to understand what they like and dislike, as well as what we should consider doing more of and what might be better in small doses. There is a feedback loop in play on social media, and we're not just speaking -- we're listening as well, and listening closely at that. We are building brand trust and comfort with our customers and potential customers with every post because they know that, more often than not, the Aflac Duck will bring a smile to their faces.

Our large audience on Facebook is exciting to say the least, but it is only a piece of the new media landscape. We're working to build a following on Twitter as well by promoting the interplay between the two sites and audiences. We also utilize YouTube to drive traffic back to Facebook in an effort to gain even more fans. While considerable proactive participation in the blogosphere is an uncertain path for an insurance company, we are assessing opportunities with that medium as well to determine the best course of action.

Social media is constantly evolving, and Aflac's mission is to be where our existing and future customers are. If early results are any indicator, the success of the Aflac Duck Facebook fan page could serve as a model for other companies looking to enhance their experience in social media pool as well.

James Wisdom is senior manager of new media for Aflac.

On Twitter? Follow the Aflac Duck at @aflacduck. Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

James Wisdom is the 2nd Vice President, Integrated Marketing at Aflac, the top provider of voluntary and guaranteed-renewable insurance in the United States. He reports to Aflac's Chief Marketing Officer and is responsible for developing and...

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