Jeff Terry
Associate Creative Director

Operation Surprise and Delight

Safe is invisible—so stop playing it safe

Recently, I watched a nearly 4-minute pre-roll video. I watched long after I was given the SKIP AD prompt. When the ad was over and the video I originally searched for started, I was caught a little off-guard. I had forgotten why I came to YouTube in the first place.

If you know anything about the analytics behind pre-roll videos then you’ll know that getting a viewer to spend more than a few precious seconds on your ad is a win. If you know anything about me, then you know I hover over that SKIP AD button (yes, just like everyone else). So it’s pretty remarkable that I gave 224 seconds of my time to Purple to learn about their mattress covers even though I had no intention of buying a mattress cover and I had never heard of Purple before.

Why did I watch it? Because Purple rewarded me for watching. They created something entertaining and funny that featured a family of sasquatches using their product (and yes, it’s as weird and wonderful as it sounds). They could have slapped something together that simply delivered their proof points—a commercial that was all about them with no mind to what I wanted. They could have gone the informative, inoffensive, and safe route.

But safe is invisible.

When I’m working on concepts for social media or any digital property, I’m given two directives that seem to contradict one another. And “be safe” isn’t one of them. Those two directives are:

  1. Content is king
  2. Audiences will lose interest after 3 seconds

Basically, 3 seconds is just enough time to flash a logo and say “HI!”…and “HI!” doesn’t quite cut it. To keep the conversation going beyond that, you need to be disruptive in the best way possible.

Not gonna lie, being disruptive for some non-profit clients in higher education, philanthropy, or membership can be a challenge. We’re asking their target audiences to do some pretty lofty things—join, donate, enroll, or send their child off to college. Breaking through the social media cacophony in an entertaining way that doesn’t diminish the reputation of an organization or academic standing of an institution requires a balanced approach.

We have a few examples of campaigns we’ve launched as part of Operation Surprise and Delight. And in each case, we’re delighted with the results (but not all that surprised).

When Southern Illinois University wanted to reach out to sophomores in high school to get them to think about their future, we took a somewhat literal approach. We sent out postcards to prospective students with a link to a website that contained messages from their future selves. Essentially, this site would contain about 20 humor-infused communiques from the future. Visitors would cycle through 8 messages before getting to the payoff: an acknowledgement that time travel is impossible and the whole thing was just a way to get them to fill out a form.

screenshot of a headline reading "that zombie apocalypse could have been so much worse"

I know what you’re thinking: “how many did they actually read before hitting the skip button or bouncing?” Well my skeptical friends, the majority of visitors not only engaged, but the average user made it six headlines in before skipping to continue to the form—that’s right, it led to a healthy number of leads, a high amount of shares, and a countless array of great impressions. We introduced SIU to potential students as a place that is thinking about their future without pressuring 15 year-olds to have their lives planned out before their junior year. Most importantly, we started the conversation that would hopefully continue as they enroll and become students, graduates, alums, and parents of students—so basically forever.

More recently, Northern Arizona University hired us to create some social media content to support recruitment efforts. We found this uniquely challenging due in large part to the fact that NAU has an award-winning social media presence. The NAU Instagram account is loaded with some of the most beautiful campus shots we’ve ever seen, and each one generates tons of engagement. It’s a standout example of social media done right. So how would we top it? We decided we shouldn’t. Instead, we created a social media campaign built on the school mascot, Louie the Lumberjack.

For prospective student audiences, we created 6 “Choose You” videos—two 6-second, two 15-second, and one 30-second. The videos ran on Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, lending a voice and personality to NAU via a bobble-head figure sold in their campus bookstore. The tone was humorous and self-referencing. We put ourselves in the shoes of our prospects who were dealing with tons of direct mail (sorry!) as they struggle through the college decision process. The message was simple: instead of choosing a college, choose yourself and pick a school that puts you first. Louie shows up like a miniature guidance counselor to poke fun at the entire decision process.

It was quick and fun and not at all expected. Maybe you noticed the fishing line that helped Louie deliver his pitch? We were aiming to introduce NAU in a way that was as disarming as it was disruptive. Lofty promises and smiling people sitting on green lawns were not on the agenda.

We didn’t run the campaign for very long, but the engagement was impressive—and then the video went and won an Award of Distinction in the 24th Annual Communicator Awards. So now we can say award-winning bobble-head.

I’ve been a marketer with a focus on higher ed and non-profit organizations for over eleven years, as print was forced to cede ground to digital and desktops began to fall to smartphones. I started in 2007, when Facebook and the iPhone were new. And no matter how quickly the landscape shifts and the delivery method changes, the connection needs to be made. That connection between person and institution, between student and lived experience. With such an intensely personal decision, I’ve found that being human is still the best way to attract human beings.

So go out there and surprise and delight. And please, don’t be safe and ignorable.

Want to read more from Jeff? Try “We’re All In This Together” for his best advice on making the most of your agency partnership.