CAMPAIGN: Targeted outreach is wise investment for OptionsXpress

PR Team: Scanlon Corporate Communications (Chicago) and OptionsXpress (Chicago) Campaign: OptionsXpress: Giving Investors More Options Time Frame: August 2001-ongoing Budget: Under $100,000/year

PR Team: Scanlon Corporate Communications (Chicago) and OptionsXpress (Chicago) Campaign: OptionsXpress: Giving Investors More Options Time Frame: August 2001-ongoing Budget: Under $100,000/year

Josh Inglis of Scanlon Corporate Communications wasn't sure what to expect when he was headed to his initial meeting with a new business prospect, online broker OptionsXpress. It was August 2001, and it seemed an unlikely time to begin a PR marketing push for an internet start-up that specialized in allowing users to trade complex financial instruments known as options. The stock market was in the early stages of what would become a brutal tumble, and internet companies' glory days were fading into the past. "Walking into this meeting, I was wondering what they were thinking," recalls Inglis. "Yet after the meeting, we were sold. They seemed to really have an idea of what they were doing and, for a while, it felt a bit like we were in the mid-1990s again." Founded in January 2001, OptionsXpress is designed to provide the best online brokerage experience by blending value with cutting-edge technology. The site is also designed to offer brokerage clients an inexpensive and user-friendly way to trade equity options. Equity options are often used like an insurance policy by investors to hedge against potential market losses. Speculators can also use options to take risky shots at outsized gains. Strategy Having only a limited marketing budget, OptionsXpress knew it would have to get out its message in a cost-effective way that would help develop credibility with its investor audience. "For a company like ours, we thought that PR was probably among the most effective ways to gain credibility with traders," says OptionsXpress CMO Lou Friedmann. OptionsXpress settled on a PR campaign with four major goals: to become known as the top brokerage for retail options; to drive the growth of new accounts; to gain national press coverage within three months of launching the campaign; and to enlighten a skeptical press about the potential benefits of options. Another strategy Scanlon helped develop was deciding to position OptionsXpress as a so-called "specialty brokerage." The idea was that such a differentiation would help the company establish itself nearly overnight as the leading online brokerage for options. Tactics The team then targeted its key audience, which was determined to be individual investors with a knowledge of options. They then identified key influencers of this audience, which included four important financial journalists who worked closely with OptionsXpress. The firm decided to focus its pitching around its so-called "three e's" of successful options investing: education, evaluation, and execution. "Education" meant helping investors understand everything from the most basic options trading to the most complex strategy. "Evaluation" meant supplying users with the most cutting-edge tools for evaluating trading opportunities. "Execution" meant offering customers state-of-the-art technology for executing trades. Results According to Scanlon, OptionsXpress signed up 45,000 new accounts, up from about 4,000, since the start of the campaign. The jump in accounts appears to have been led largely by the tremendous amount of positive media that the effort generated. This included being named the top online broker in the prestigious annual Barron's survey, as well as favorable mentions in TheStreet.com, Forbes' Best of the Web, and BusinessWeek. The firm also earned website reviews in The Financial Times, Technical Analysis of Stocks & Commodities, and Futures. Future In late 2002, OptionsXpress decided to continue its work with Scanlon, but to spotlight its corporate story this time around. So far, this has earned the company feature coverage in Crain's Chicago Business and potential placement in upcoming corporate-culture features in Entrepreneur and DownBeat magazines.

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