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Friday, Feb. 8, 2008

How to Elf Yourself Out of Millions

By Robert Gorell
February 8th, 2008

Steve Rubel gets his elf on One might think having the year’s biggest viral marketing hit would be any business’s dream come true. Unfortunately, though, not all Web traffic is equal, and popularity contests don’t pay the bills.

According to Advertising Age, 26.4 million people spent a total of 2,600 years at, turning themselves and unsuspecting family members and coworkers into virtual dancing elves. But chances are that unless you’re a marketer, blogger, or anyone else who might have bothered to notice in the first place, you’ve likely forgotten that OfficeMax was behind the “Elf Yourself” campaign.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask anyone who’s aware of Elf Yourself — and pronounce it carefully when you do — whether they can recall who sponsored the campaign.

Most of the answers I’ve gotten thus far (“Starbucks?”; “Barnes & Noble?”; “Wasn’t that Staples?”) have been guesses.

As OfficeMax VP of Marketing and Advertising, Bob Thacker, sold it to AdAge,

We were looking to build the brand, warm up our image. We weren’t looking for sales. We are third-place players in our industry, so we are trying to differentiate ourselves through humor and humanization.”

Really? Not even looking for sales? Wow. If that’s the case, why even bother linking the campaign’s site to

The article goes on to suggest that since many of those who searched for Elf Yourself around the time used the phrase “OfficeMax,” that must somehow mean their branding effort paid off. And that makes sense — so long as you ignore that it seems most people discovered the dancing elves via email and instant messenger, not search.

Get Elastic‘s Linda Bustos sparked some debate about all of this, asserting that,

“Brand awareness is extremely valuable and important, especially in OfficeMax’ competitive industry. It might not result in immediate sales, but it should impact long term market position. Social media marketing (including blogging, podcasting and interactive viral campaigns) is a long-term strategy. It’s not a newspaper circular, it’s not PPC advertising, it’s not email marketing. Like celebrity endorsement or a Super Bowl ad, it won’t necessarily drive sales during a specific time period.”

Absolutely. But should the successful use of cute gimmickry — so long as it attracts a large, albeit random, audience of people who aren’t in buying mode, to a site that links to homepage, for a business that sells office supplies — be considered an automatic win?

So, millions of people go to a site that has little (no offense, elves) to do with the brand. No attempt is even made to engage would-be customers in a buying scenario (“Elf Yourself and save 10% on last-minute holiday treats when at”). No… nothing? That’s branding!?

One of the folks who commented on Linda’s post makes a telling point about the SEO logistics at play:

[...] this is search engine dynamite! The domain (which is linked to by nearly 30,000 other websites) links directly (and only) to the homepage. Conventional internet marketing dictates that this will have a huge impact on’s ability to rank in Google on competitive terms. I’d love to see their stats – I bet it’s a big win.

Rank well on “competitive terms” — for whom? Elves? In a lot of other circumstances, this would be a great point, but in this case, it’s yet another example of why “conventional internet marketing” wisdom is misleading. Getting the extra traffic feels nice — and often impresses the boss — but there’s one thing that always feels better: Money.

Still, let’s see how much traffic Elf Yourself is driving to

Not much of a traffic boost, is it?

But, hey, this wasn’t about traffic or revenue — it was about fun, right? Not for Toy New York, the agency that developed Elf Yourself. Nope. As Linda pointed out to me in the comments on her post, they’re the ones who are probably benefiting the most from this.

Looks like she’s got a pretty good point…

ToyNY puts the elves to work

How about shareholder value? Kevin Horne points out that this is the second year in a row that the elves stuffed coal in the OMX stock price:

[...] in 2006, the company actually reported a decline of some $7 million in retail sales in its fourth quarter, 11 million “elf visitors” notwithstanding. Or notwithclicking either, apparently. Talk about squandering an opportunity. Two years in a row.

Oh well, at least OfficeMax got some national press coverage out of this. Let’s see what happens in this clip from Good Morning America:

Don’t get me wrong. I like the elves. It just seems that, since they’re already such hard workers, why not put them to work? (Even Santa’s got that figured out.)

Before you elf yourself out of millions in missed revenue from a viral marketing campaign, ask yourself: What good are millions of visitors if they don’t buy millions in goods?

Sometimes it takes better planning.

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Comments (30)

  1. I completely agree with your points on the Google ranking. Why do they assume that a boost in traffic to a site that links to OfficeMax will suddenly boost OfficeMax’s ratings? If that happened, I’d love to see it because that goes against everything I know. I could see this being true if the Elves page had something to do with office supplies in any sort of authoritative way, but of course it doesn’t.

    As far as the branding “proof” they suggested, I have to agree with you. I found out about the site via IM and I think I only paid attention to the brand because I’m a marketer. I’m sure a man on the street poll would come up with similar results as your Starbucks and Staples.

    Great article!

  2. On the other hand, here we are still talking about the campaign and OfficeMax. Not that your post will be sending 26.4 million people to or anything…

  3. I hope they captured the email addresses. 26 million email addresses is a very valuable long-term asset.

  4. “Why do they assume that a boost in traffic to a site that links to OfficeMax will suddenly boost OfficeMax’s ratings?”

    Hi Shari. It’s not the traffic, it’s 30,000 sites linking to Elf Yourself. Elf Yourself, in turn, links to Search engines base a sites’ rankings largely on the amount of other sites that link to them. The more sites that link to the sites that link to you, the better. Clear as mud now? :)

    I’m still doubtful the campaign overall will generate a positive ROI, but Office Max should see some benefit to their search engine rankings.

  5. Shari: Thanks!

    Mark: So far, two online editors, someone from a top e-tailer, someone with a hot interactive agency, and a search engine marketer have left comments here. I’m not sure what percentage of that 24.6 million we represent, but we can only buy so many office supplies. And yes, HERE we are (on GrokDotCom not ;) This is about “who” not “how many.”

    Ben: Great point about the email addresses! I definitely should have mentioned that. Yes, it’s great to have all those email addresses — in theory. This is where Seth Godin’s concept of Permission Marketing comes in. How much permission is really involved here? Yes, you’ve agreed to give OfficeMax your email address, but under false pretense. Not that having 24.6 million visitors means that they got the same number of email addresses, but whatever the number is, it’s not nearly the same level of permission. The people who exchanged their email addy in order to elf themselves have, whether or not they realize it, given OfficeMax permission to s p a m them. At least it will feel like s p a m if they were never interested in office supplies to begin with.

    Adam: Does Google rank according to the Transitive Property? Wouldn’t that just count as one single link (the one from, not 30k? Regardless, getting people to shop for office supplies once they’re searching for elves is the real challenge. And aside from the splash page that’s up right now, which directs people to, there’s nothing luring people to shop. No elves. No discounts. Just a few words, a logo, and a link.

  6. Robert – The more “link popularity” (incoming links) a site has, the more a link from it can help your Google rankings. It’s the basis of Pagerank, Google’s ranking system. So a link from (pagerank 8 ) will benefit you exponentially more than a link from a lesser site.

    People don’t have to search for anything elf related for Office Max to see benefit. Because has a strong new link pointing to their site, they should improve in ranking for terms they want to rank for, like “office supplies”.

    You can see a list of sites that links to OfficeMax with a Yahoo tool. They list the links by importance/strength. The one from ElfYourself is #1:

    It would certainly help more if the links weren’t about cute elfs, and more relevant to Office Max’s business :) But they should eventually benefit, it takes a while for links to age & kick in.

    Excellent article, I certainly agree with the premise. Lots of companies just want to get in on “that whole social-viral-digg media” thing no matter the cost/benefit.

  7. Ouch, that’s a kick in the junk if people think Staples did that. Or Starbucks! (You have to admit, it looks like the elves are drinkin’ the Starbucks koolaid both in their dancing and the color of their vesture…)

    On the SEO issue…

    Perhaps OM should pull a “link bait and switch”?
    Basically set up a 301-redirect from to and that will forward all the link juice from EY to OM, instead of just linking to it?

  8. One day, these huge chains will understand that it’s all about getting the cash register to ring. This was one huge opportunity gone wrong. And one day these huge advertising agencies will understand the same thing that it’s all about getting their clients’ cash registers to ring.

  9. It may seem an unususually wasteful campaign but its not even a little unusual. Many big ad budgets pay big. Even more lose big. It is (or was?) uncommon to have a good idea which is which. Especially if you don’t know what the camopaign is ‘for’ in the first place.

    How many ad campaigns are cargo cults?

    The Australian Open (tennis) had many ‘major sponsors.’ Some I believe bought value. Others bought nothing. They probablly all think the belong in group 1.

    –IBM, Major Sponsor–
    Among a few other things, they ran the website. Live action, results stats, etc. A great example of what the net is capable of now that it wasn’t last year. They are saying ‘we can do things others can’t’. It’s not Plato but it’s at least coherent.

    –KIA Motor, Majorist Sponsor–
    They had their logo in the most visible places. The screens & nets & billboards. They had some cars around the complex. What do they have to say: “KIA Motors.” That’s it. The players all thank them live after the most viewed matches. But they have nothing to say. They just want you to see their logo and sneek in and grab some airtime.

    Kia renewed their sponsorship for the long term.

  10. Adam – Yeah, I understand the concept of “link juice,” but it’s still only a rank-based (as opposed to relevance-based) way of looking at SEO. I’m not sure the elves will do much to help them in relation to office supply-related keywords, as you mentioned. Besides, they’re already paying top dollar to rank well via paid search. One thing OfficeMax has done that’s smart, though — which may also help free up some of that content so they rank better organically — is they’ve reinvented their navigation. If you can’t beat OfficeDepot and Staples in the brick-and-mortar world, why not be best in breed online? Still… that makes it even sadder that they’re not planning scenarios where the elves could help you buy stuff.

    Linda – No way. The “link bait and switch” would add insult to elfery (so to say). The point is that they haven’t planned on using the elves in any persuasion scenarios. In other words, they haven’t created segues to help entice would-be customers into buying mode. When people are looking for elves and they wind up with a page about pomegranates — or, in this case, office supplies — they bounce.

    Joel & Nethy – Amazing how marketers choose not to see wasted opportunity as wasted money, isn’t it? Opportunity cost matters. A lot.

  11. I also work in marketing but never noticed the brand. Why would I? I was too busy pasting images of my mates onto the dancing elves.

    To hear any VP of Marketing and Advertising state “We weren’t looking for sales” should possibly be translated as “D’oh”.

    It’s great to look for differentiation in a competitive market but who wants to be known as the ‘quirky guys who don’t sell very much’

    I would also have to question how much ‘added value’ the design agency gave OfficeMax. A case of “give them what they want….not what they need” perhaps? Who knows.

    Either way – my friends enjoyed the Dancing Elves so thanks Starbucks…Staples….whoever.

  12. I just want to add that I loved this article and all the posts!

    I heard of Elf Yourself because my thirteen year-old niece showed me (will she be shopping at Office Max anytime soon?), and I had no inkling Office Max was behind it.

    But the discussion was great. I’m just getting into SEO and reading stuff like this is better than any book on the topic.


  13. Robert, you’re so right about the bait and switch being a bounce-fest. Would leave a bad taste in a visitor’s mouth. Maybe the negative experience will help them remember the brand more than the funny? ;-)

  14. The site will probably be even more popular during Christmas 2008 than it was in 2007. Should be pretty easy for them to make a few branding adjustments

  15. D’oh. How big a missed opportunity is this? OfficeMax just had the chance to capture the email addresses, images and names of 26 million people and they did nothing. OK, a lot of very valid comments about the waste of the traffic spike itself, but how much love could their brand get with a series of campaigns around “What do elves do at….” completing this sentence with any or every recognised community festival throughout the year, from New Year to Thanksgiving via Oscars night and beyond. If they had captured some location data, they could even have localised the campaign around each of their stores.

    Or how’s about a prize “Elf in store” campaign. Email out the images of fifty elves a month, if that elf shows up at the checkout give them $100 voucher. Maybe even get something going on Facebook by enabling a “Name the Elf” campaign so friends of published elves could get a chance at the vouchers.

    I’m sure readers of this page could come up with another ten ideas each for how OfficeMax should have been harvesting the dollars the whole year through. Oops. Big Ooops. Enormous.

  16. [...] continuously fail at providing solutions that actually have measurable results elsewhere on the web2, they are continually failing on social networking sites. For example, Wal-Mart got in the Facebook [...]

  17. [...] a big believer that OfficeMax may even have failed at that. Grok Dot Com gives an object lesson in how to miss the mark with a marketing campaign, no matter what that mark [...]

  18. Love your columns, and I don’t disagree with a lot of your points — a small token discount positioned as a gift would’ve been pretty smart, especially in a send-to-a-friend feature — but for a large corporation like OfficeMax, I doubt was a huge expenditure. How colossal of a waste was it if they budget was, what? $100K? $200K? for a company with $9B in revenue?

    Rather, I imagine they saw it as an unexpectedly popular holiday card to its customers — a nice gesture that says “OfficeMax is a place that thinks fun is fun.”

    And I’d bet that someone — several someones — suggested they add a tie-in. And the idea was shot down for the same reason you don’t put a coupon in your corporate holiday cards or talk business at the holiday party: it’s in bad taste. Then you’re talking about a potentially negative brand experience, rather than laying the groundwork for better days ahead.

    But we’re all just Monday Morning Quarterbacks, aren’t we? How many of us created viral campaigns that hit Outbreak status?

  19. Thom,

    Excellent question!

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear about why this is so wasteful. I’m not at all bothered by whatever it is they paid Toy New York to develop the campaign. (Actually, that same agency did NINETEEN other holiday-themed sites for OfficeMax, but Elf Yourself was the only one that took off.) It’s wonderful that their investment in paid off in traffic, but OfficeMax never took advantage of it. That’s offensive.

    Why’s it offensive? Because the same site was a HUGE hit (traffic-wise) the year before!

    This isn’t exactly lightning striking twice in the same spot. OfficeMax knew Elf Yourself was going to get tons of attention, yet they did exactly the same thing they did the year before: Nothing.

    What this campaign has really cost OfficeMax so far amounts to untold millions in revenue — money they’d have earned had they bothered to turn this into a real campaign.

    The agency did its job. Their job was to build something cool and interactive. Since there was obviously no product tie-in or branding direction (beyond a logo and “brought to you by”), they didn’t convert customers. There was no elf-related landing page.

    Basically, it was an agency-driven creative effort with no marketing behind it. That’s not a marketing campaign. It’s not even a branding campaign. It’s an elf campaign.

    Is that Monday Morning Quarterbacking? Absolutely. But that’s a big part of what we do as a consultancy; we look for flaws in strategy, disconnects between channels, identify missed opportunities, and make sure they don’t happen again.

    I really like your comparison to a corporate holiday card. Yes, you’re definitely right. The hard sell doesn’t work, and they’d have been interrupting the experience if it were framed that way. But to suggest there aren’t ways to integrate some sort of holiday discount or promotion — not even a proper landing page for people who clicked through from — is a VERY costly assumption to make.

    Had they planned this according to customer motivations, they could have turned a healthy percentage of elves into brand advocates.

    How about a deal on last-minute digital camera purchases? Wouldn’t that work with the frame of mind most of these visitors are in (thinking of loved ones and uploading their pictures)?*

    Would that really be so tacky? From an elf?

    *If they do this next year, you heard it here first.

  20. Nineteen? Seriously. Damn. That’s the factoid of the season. What are the other ones?

    And I agree with you: there is a way they could’ve positioned as a gift, tied it in with photos, or whatever. That’s the job of a good agency, right? To make selling seem less like selling and more like a bright shiny idea at the right place at the perfect time.

    But boy, it’d have to be subtle.

    For what is essentially a PR/sponsorship/brand play, I’d guard against clients trying to be too overt with a bunch of sales conversion funnels. It turns people off — consumers know that they’re being sold to, that they’re being advertised to. Consumers are very sophisticated, and their radars go up pretty quick.

  21. Because the branding effect failed, what can be done to salvage this campaign? If people can’t recall if it was Starbucks or Staples or Office Depot or what – this can add insult to injury, where any positive association is attributed to a competitor!

    Apart from incorporating the elves year-round into TV and print ads (ick), how can this be achieved?

    Eventually these elves will have to retire, I can’t imagine people getting so giddy over this again next year.

  22. [...] campaign (our post Can Dancing Elves Move Product Off Shelves? and Robert Gorell’s How To Elf Yourself Out of Millions), I noticed another nail in Office Max’s coffin in my feed reader [...]

  23. Another “d’oh!” for this campaign – Adweek attributed the viral to OFFICE DEPOT.

    Just blogged about it today.

  24. You’ve got to be pretty comfortable with yourself to criticize the Elf campaign.

    Also, the big quarter for office supplies is Q3 (think: back to school), so it’s natural for Q4 for drop.

  25. pwb,

    Yes, I am comfortable with my criticism of the OfficeMax elf campaign. It was an attention-getter, but once you consider that they didn’t leverage it to increase sales, that it didn’t even drive traffic to, and that people are having a difficult time even recalling which company was behind it (see Linda’s comment above), I think my points are valid. It really hasn’t done much for their brand and it’s clear that it hasn’t done anything for the bottom line.

    This isn’t meant to be mean-spirited. I like the campaign. But from a marketing perspective, it’s been a failure. They can turn it around next year with better planning — and they should — but will they?

    Had the campaign flopped, it would’ve been more forgivable (“So, they tried something new and it didn’t work… No harm done. It didn’t cost them much”). But that wasn’t the case. They ran the same exact campaign in 2006 and it was a hit. They knew it was going to be a success for Christmas 2007, and still, they did nothing. So, it had about the same effect as a single banner ad buy on a heavily trafficked site. Not much.

    It’s not about Q3-vs-Q4, it’s about Q406-vs-Q407.

    Kevin Horne did some more digging and here’s what he found:

    “…OfficeMax just reported its financials, with retail sales dropping nearly $50 million in Q4 compared to same period 2006. We had sort of calculated those Elves would raise sales by $5 million. Hmmm.

    “Also in February, Staples bid $3.7 billion for Corporate Express. Will OfficeMax make it to the end of the year without a merger? I hear the Elves are getting nervous.”

  26. This sort of trick can only really help I would imagine, despite the sales figures, nervous Elves can’t be blamed. I haven’t seen any imitations but would love to see variations on the theme.

  27. They now webt with JibJab to create the new site, and from what I read, they really improved it, and you can even buy “elf” stuff and pay to download your elf videos…

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  29. more features and much more dodgy:

    :-) I just tried this .. awesome!!!

  30. just tried this thing.

    it’s hilarious!!!

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