Company: The Blue Cross
Contact: Darren Howe and Emma Crean, public relations for The Blue Cross
Location: Burford, United Kingdom
Industry: Nonprofit
Annual revenue: $44,300,000
Number of employees: 450

Quick Read

News headlines may not be easier to swallow if they come from a talking-canine avatar, but that kind of originality is what helped capture the attention of a British nonprofit's target market and increase traffic to its new social-networking site.

Founded in 1897, the Blue Cross is one of the United Kingdom's oldest animal welfare charities. Aspiring to build community and foster the exchange of information among pet owners, the organization recently introduced a social network specifically designed for people with pets.

To promote the network, the organization launched a viral campaign that included a series of banners that combined text-to-speech and a new page-scraping technology to feature talking animal avatars that read the latest news headlines aloud. Also included was a campaign Web site where, similar to Office Max's Elf Yourself concept, users could upload pictures and make their pets "talk," with options to send to a friend and post online.

This approach, the Blue Cross found, was effective in engaging its target market—i.e., pet enthusiasts who like to socially interact online—and the new social network has realized increased traffic and member activity as a result.

"The nature of the viral campaign meant that these visitors were more likely to be interested in the social networking aspects of the site...thus increasing the rate of member sign-ups and activity on the forum," representatives from the Blue Cross said.


In 2007, the United Kingdom's predominant animal welfare charity, The Blue Cross, relaunched its pet information Web site as a social network., where members could create profiles; share their pet pictures, stories and tips; and interact with other pet owners.

The organization's goal for AllAboutPets was to make it the primary social network for pet lovers of all ages, and it needed to achieve a critical mass of regular users if it was to keep members engaged and ensure the network's vitality.


In an effort to drive traffic to the AllAboutPets site, the Blue Cross worked with WWAV Rapp Collins Group, an Omnicom Group marketing services agency based in London, and Oddcast, which specializes in speaking-avatar products, to create the Talking Pets campaign. Launched on July 28, 2008, the campaign included the following:

  • A 30-day banner ad campaign: Banners featuring talking pet avatars ran on AOL and MySpace for one month. Avatars in the AOL ads surprised users by reciting the day's news headlines in real time—a first in banner technology—using AOL news content, a new page-scraping technology, and Oddcast's text-to-speech engine.
  • A dedicated microsite: The banners linked to the Talking Pets Web site, where users could upload their own pet picture and make their pet "talk" using a superimposed mouth, or customize one of six talking pet avatars available on the site, including those featured in the banner ads.

Users were given the choice of several voices for their pet and could either enter a personal message into the platform or select from 13 prewritten speeches, which ranged from birthday and holiday wishes to apologies to random commentary. The six avatars were further customizable with a variety of backgrounds and accessories such as hats, glasses, and jewelry.

Furthermore, users were given the option of sending the talking pet to a friend and posting it to a Facebook profile. They were then invited to visit the AllAboutPets Web site. Users who forwarded the talking pet to a friend also received a confirmation email that again promoted the AllAboutPets site.

The Blue Cross also contracted Hot Cherry, a London-based digital marketing and PR agency, to build buzz for the Talking Pets site among the blogger community. The story was picked up by charity- and pet-focused sites as well as Brand Republic, NewMediaAge, Mashable, and other industry blogs.


In the 30 days following campaign launch (i.e., when the banner ads ran), the Talking Pets site received 90,499 unique visitors and 123,694 total visitors, with 37,713 originating from banner ad placements; 22% of visitors used the "send to a friend" feature, and 7% posted a talking pet to their Facebook profiles.

The site continues to greet an average of 1,000 to 2,000 visitors a day, even though no further marketing has been conducted.

In line with the organization's goals, traffic to the AllAboutPets Web site has increased 20% since the launch of this campaign. Return visitor traffic has surged 50%, with a 100% increase recorded at the height of the campaign. For the Blue Cross, these numbers, and the recent rise in member activity on the site, signify that the campaign was effective in appealing to the right audience.

Lessons Learned

Oddcast claims that its avatar rich-media ads typically deliver higher-than-average click-through rates. Moreover, taking into account the size of AOL's audience and the novelty of real-time news narration, it's not surprising that the banner campaign accounted for a third of visitors to the Talking Pets Web site.

Still, the nonprofit's ultimate goal was to increase membership on its AllAboutPets network, and so the campaign needed to attract targeted leads—not just high volumes of traffic.

"It is challenging to create viral content, but even harder to create something that will go viral among your target audience," Blue Cross representatives noted. "The danger here was that if we created something with mass appeal, we could have generated a large volume of traffic, consuming a large amount of bandwidth, without reaching the people we really wanted.

"The key to the success of this campaign was the ideal combination of customer insight with a creative idea. We managed to achieve the challenge of a 'niche' viral by combining our insight into pet owner behavior online with Oddcast's technology, and the results show through in the quality of the traffic delivered to AllAboutPets."

Related Links

Note: The annual revenue of the Blue Cross is £25.4 million.

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via