CAMPAIGNS: Making the best of a messy situation

PR Team: Apartments.com (Chicago) and Romanoff Hesser Communications (Chicago) Campaign: Messiest College Apartment Time Frame: February 2002 - April 2002 Budget: $40,000 Apartments.com launched its annual Messiest College Apartment competition in 2000, offering $10,000 to the most artfully filthy collegiate dive in a bid to entice affluent 20- and 30-something renters to visit the website and vote on the finalists. The competition quickly gained a following in broadcast media, capturing widespread coverage with its off-the-wall gross-out appeal. In its second year, 110 million people visited the site to cast their votes for the grubbiest digs, up from 38 million at its launch. Going into its third year, however, the two-person marketing team at the online apartment-listings service was finding the terrain a bit more challenging, with their campaign budget slashed to a third of its original amount. Owned by a cabal of newspaper publishers including Gannett, Knight-Ridder, and the Tribune Company, the site is linked to the homepages of 150 newspapers, but relies heavily on publicity to drive traffic and keep its property-management clients happy. Amidst the belt-tightening of the post-bubble era, Apartments.com was, like most dot-com survivors, being made to do more with less. Strategy Lacking the funds needed for an SMT, Apartments.com and tech agency Romanoff Hesser (recently rebranded as Media ImPRessions) decided that for the February announcement of the contest (timed to coincide with the start of the spring semester at colleges and universities nationwide), the goal would be to generate media interest, consumer traffic, and entries from each of 30 major metropolitan markets. Apartments.com also sought to leverage the appeal of 2001 winner Matt Robinson to raise interest in the 2002 contest. Tactics Romanoff Hesser started by targeting local broadcast media, particularly radio outlets, to drive coverage up the food chain to regional and national affiliates, and secure placement on a national TV show to ensure trickle-down pickup. "Radio stations are particularly easy to pitch with this story," says Mark Bouffard, who led the account for Romanoff Hesser, "because they like talking to young people." Robinson made the rounds on radio talk shows, and TV stations were provided with b-roll of the previous year's finalists. The firm also made use of Wireless Flash News, an online newswire that feeds quirky features and entertainment news to radio outlets. When the finalists were announced in March, efforts focused on the finalists' home markets - Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minneapolis. "The announcements of the finalists got more coverage than the winner," says director of marketing Karrie Gottschild, "because people want to know who in their hometown is the messiest, and make sure their kids get the title." Each finalist did between 30 and 40 radio interviews. Apartments.com weighed The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Live with Regis & Kelly, and the Today show against each other for an exclusive on the winners, Tim Sexauer and Peter Debelak of UCLA. Eventually, the exclusive was awarded to Today because of its audience and the promise of a feature presentation. A live feed from the winners' squalid LA apartment was arranged for the show. Results The campaign generated 57 broadcast placements in addition to the Today show, and the site racked up 83 million votes for the contest - nearly four-fifths the previous year's total, despite a much smaller budget. The firm's gambit with the Today show proved worthwhile, as the story was subsequently picked up by a number of outlets, including CNN and Last Call with Carson Daly, and the site experienced its highest-ever number of hits in a single day. Future Apartments.com is considering variations on the "messiest" theme, targeting college students and their parents, to replace or run alongside the competition. "We're looking to leverage the same type of activity," says Bouffard. "We're considering something incorporating school spirit - the excitement of it and the decorating students do."

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