Last month, in anticipation of the President's State of the Union Address, the marketing team at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) blanketed the blogosphere with its own version of the same. The email pitch came with the subject line, "Presidential Address + Hot Naked Chick = PETA's State of the Union Undress?"
"With Congress cheering and senators smirking," wrote PETA's Jack Shepherd, "this hot PETA girl bares it all for animal rights." (See the video here.)
No matter how you feel about PETA, as an entity or a cause, you probably know its marketing. Even those who don't admire it, in other words, are likely aware of it. Pointed, outrageous, admired, and criticized, PETA's messaging is the type that makes the audience sit up and take notice.
It's also everywhere. PETA as an organization has jumped on the social media bandwagon in a big way, and is riding shotgun on blogs, YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, and lots of word-of-mouth initiatives.
Last month, I chatted with PETA Marketing Manager Joel Bartlett, who works out of the organization's Norfolk, VA, headquarters.
Ann Handley: As a start, tell me a little about your background and how you came to head up PETA's marketing.
Joel Bartlett: For my first couple years at PETA, I ran the "peta2 Street Team," seeing it grow from a network of 7,500 youth activists to over 100,000 energetic guerrilla marketers (we now boast over 200,000 Street Teamers and an [email] list of almost 800,000 youth). During this time I oversaw all aspects of the peta2 Street Team, including our "missions"; the development of new resources and new ideas; the push for a stronger community via our blog, photoblog, message boards, and sites such as MySpace; and the tracking and analysis of our Web traffic and e-news.
About two years ago I took the position of Marketing Manager in our new marketing department (we were formed to expand the lessons we learned from our peta2 program to the rest of the organization), where…I also oversee all of PETA's non-fundraising email campaigns and the creation and promotion (both paid advertisement and free placement, such as on YouTube) of our Web content. And again, I oversee all Web tracking and analysis and the push for a stronger community (such as launching a PETA blog), except now for the entire organization, not just peta2.
AH: So—prior to two years ago—did PETA not have a marketing department?
JB: Correct. We formed our marketing department at PETA just two years ago. We formed our youth marketing department a few years before that, and other people working on marketing initiatives were sprinkled throughout the organization.
PETA has always done such a great job getting attention to the issues we're working on, whether it's letting people know that animals, including cats and dogs, are skinned alive for fur in China (where most of the fur in the US comes from) or that it's never OK to leave dogs in cars during the summertime as they at risk of death from of the heat.
However, with the success of our youth program peta2, we realized that there was room for improving the process in which we funnel this attention into new relationships by providing Web users with more compelling calls for action. We also realized the potential for online marketing—obviously a newer field and one that we were keen to dive into.
PETA has 26 years of campaign and media experience, so obviously it's not the formation of the marketing department that made PETA a cutting-edge organization. But we've been instrumental in taking PETA's strategies and applying them to online realm. We've been able to open up whole new doors of opportunity to reach people, and to facilitate our supporters' reach out to others by harnessing the power of word of mouth. Both with our youth and non-youth marketing efforts, we've discovered new ways to mobilize our members—for instance, to pressure companies to stop wearing fur or to stop testing their products on animals.
AH: What role does Marketing play at PETA? Is it involved directly in setting policy and strategy, or does it come in to deal with tactics and implementation?
JB: We work hand in hand with our campaigns and other departments from the initial stages of every project, no matter how big or little. Generally speaking, with each project there are two interconnected ways the organization thinks about reaching people—one is through media, either from celebrity support or a creative demonstration, the other is through marketing (by putting video online, buying online ads, pitching it to bloggers, making an interesting Web feature, providing our activists with tools to promote the idea, facilitating people taking action, emailing something to our supporters, sending a bulletin to our friends on MySpace, updating Wikipedia with relevant information, etc.)—and that's what we focus on.
Sometimes we'll kill a project that we don't believe fits our goals, and sometimes projects with no real marketing potential will continue on, perhaps because of the great potential to reach people through traditional media. Most often we work in coordination with other departments throughout an entire project.
We—meaning the marketing department—do own some projects, such as our current "PETA's State of the Union Undress," but often we're working hand and hand with a specific campaign, such as our Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign. We'll brainstorm with them and work with them to implement a campaign or project.
AH: So it sounds like a big thrust of your group is leveraging online marketing tools and social media. Have you found great success in one particular area over another? YouTube vs. MySpace, for example?
JB: We've had a lot of success on YouTube and other video sharing sites. We've had a three-pronged plan for them. Our first step was just getting all our content on the various popular video sharing sites like YouTube, MetaCafe, Break.com, and GoogleVideo. Our goal is for people to find PETA videos whenever and wherever they're searching for videos online. If someone is searching on YouTube for an interview of their favorite band—say Good Charlotte—they'll find our interview with band member Billy Martin talking about vegetarianism. Or if they're searching for John McEnroe, they'll find his spay and neuter PSA. From just our efforts of posting videos we estimate we've received almost 2 million video views.
We also try to harness word of mouth on YouTube, in a few ways. For instance, we encouraged finalists in our "World's Cutest Vegetarian" contest, run on our youth division Web site peta2.com, to send us videos of themselves asking people to vote for them. We posted the videos on our blog and MySpace profile, and they also promoted them to everyone they knew.
We also recently had a contest on peta2.com asking our Street Team members to create videos of themselves explaining why they went veg and how it's benefited them. The winning video received over 1,000 votes.
Most recently, we've been working to encourage our supporters to upload animal rights videos to their accounts. peta2 just finished a "mission" asking our Street Teamers to do this, with a prize of a digital camera going to the Street Teamer with the most views to a video in the span of three weeks. The winning video received 258,275 views in the first three weeks and is now up to over 320,000 views.
AH: You definitely don't shy away from controversial messages or techniques—like featuring a woman undressing in the State of the Union Undress—or from pushing your message by any means necessary. Is there ever a backlash from your efforts?
JB: Getting naked is controversial? We just think of it as fun!
But seriously, the current situation is critical for billions of animals, and we consider it our duty to continue drawing attention to the plight of animals abused in the meat, clothing, experimentation, and entertainment industries. We are willing to use all legal means at our disposal in ways that will capture the public's imagination.
Because we have found that people do pay more attention to our racier actions—and we consider the public's attention to issues that affect animals to be extremely important—this will often entail taking our clothes off. We understand that some consider our projects that include nudity to be controversial, but if our doing so shakes people up and even shocks them into discussion about the staggering number of lives at stake, then we are successful.
AH: A lot of people say that they notice the nudity, not the message. How do you define success of some of your programs? Gimmicks and publicity are great, but how do those efforts help you reach your goals?
JB: I must note that we don't rely on nudity for the majority of our outreach, nor do we use it gratuitously; it is intended to underscore our message, whether it is "I'd rather go naked than wear fur," to emphasize the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, or to show the vulnerability of animals in laboratories or circuses. We make a point of having something for all tastes, from the most conservative to the most radical and from the most tasteless to the most refined.
In the same way we work hard to balance things that are designed to provoke discussion with items that will help us create new relationships with users.
So, for instance, when one of our MySpace friends started an online chain letter about our campaign to get clothing retailer Wet Seal to go fur free driving 350,000 people to peta2.com in one week to watch a graphic video of animals being skinned alive for fur in China (the largest exporter of fur to the United States), we made sure that there was a clear call for action that would enable us to form new relationships with the resulting visitors—a fur-free pledge. We also provide Web forms for users to contact companies through. (BTW, just one month later Wet Seal signed a moratorium pledging they would not sell fur the coming season.)
This approach has proved amazingly successful—in just this past year, for example, major retailers, including Polo Ralph Lauren, Limited Brands, Ann Taylor, and Kenneth Cole Productions, made commitments to PETA to drop the fur from their clothing lines. Welch's agreed to stop conducting deadly animal tests. Our campaign against the atrocities at KFC continues, and we've taken on new challenges as well. We've launched campaigns against Burberry and POM Wonderful, calling on those companies to stop killing animals.
AH: You know, I'm imagining all the readers of MarketingProfs reading this and thinking, "Well, that's cool for an organization like PETA. But it doesn't help me do my job any better." What lessons do you think other marketers can learn from PETA?
JB: I think that the success of MySpace has taught us all a number of lessons, such as that people like to create things. And they like to show off what they care about, especially when it's made easy for them. If you let people participate in your brand, they will become brand warriors.
If people aren't already creating ads for you, ask them to, and give them an incentive. Nobody says no to free stuff. You'd be amazed at how much we've gotten done just by giving away stickers!
We also actively recruit well-connected users. By reading the most popular blogs on MySpace and scanning through the most popular people, we've been able to build relationships with a number of well-connected people on the site. These are people who can drive traffic and sales (if that's your bottom line). We've asked popular people to enter contests that involve being voted for. One popular MySpacer can drive thousands of people to vote for them.
We've also mailed free T-shirts to some of our more popular MySpace friends so that they can post pictures of themselves wearing them. We've used those photos in our bulletins to help drive sales. It's a level of naturalism that can't be faked. Any company can search through MySpace, YouTube, or the whole blogosphere for influencers who are talking about them and make contact with those people. And if people are already contacting you—ask them how many friends they have on MySpace and give the more connected people a little more attention.
Another key to success on any social-networking site is participating in them. Not just so you can be a part of the community and get good karma points, but I think more importantly so that you can understand the systems completely and then take advantage of them. There are ways, for instance, to send MySpace bulletins that make it one-click-easy to repost a bulletin.
Even little tweaks like that can go a long way if you're hoping for a message to be sent around.