When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964, The Wilderness Society had already been working to protect these places for nearly 29 years. So when they came to MERCURYcsc for help turning the 50th anniversary of capital-W Wilderness (land that is federally designated and protected) into a banner year for TWS, we knew it was time to re-frame the conversation.
The Wilderness Society had a good thing going in 2014: They had been raising money and successfully lobbying to protect untouched wild places for 50 years, and boasted a collection of long-time donors and celebrity backers that remained committed to the idea of Wilderness.
But the next generation of Wilderness supporters was proving somewhat more elusive. What would happen to the 110 million acres of remaining Wilderness if a new era of interest and support wasn’t somehow drummed up? For an organization that had long been focused on a certain kind of fundraising and lobbying, the challenge of finding a new audience was intimidating.
TWS was asking for a paradigm change: a new way of looking at their world, combined with a campaign and brand framework that would catapult them into the next 50 years.
The first step to any successful campaign is knowledge–about your audience, your competition, and exactly what your goals and constraints mean in the real world.
We began by investigating TWS’ target audience, and what they thought of wilderness and TWS. Who exactly should we be talking to? Who was most likely to be converted into long-term, active supporters of TWS?
We did this by reaching out to members of our proprietary research panel (the T+O Forum, which consists of thousands of consumers across the country). We also interviewed key stakeholders inside and outside the TWS organization, and did separate outside research on the state of the non-profit space.
“Memories of my experience have reminded me of the power of the wilderness and the power of me…and also of the fragility of the wilderness and the fragility of me.”
- Graham, Portland, OR
We discovered that while wilderness was important and powerful for a large segment of the population, they tended to stray from the official definition of Wilderness with a capital “W.” TWS had focused on supporters of Wilderness for 50 years, but our research identified a much larger demographic who is just as passionate but less narrow in its definition of the word.
“It’s where I reflect on our busy life, think about what I want for our family going forward and have the most quality time with our kids.”
- Michele, Raleigh, NC
“It is on a mountain, in the woods, in a lake, in the ocean, on a river or field. All of these things have one thing in common, that is being away from civilization.”
- Jenna, Breckenridge, CO
And most importantly, we discovered that the people most likely to act, donate, or otherwise offer themselves to wilderness causes were those that had personal stories to share about the effects of outdoor experiences on their own lives. They weren’t motivated by scare tactics (a common environmental non-profit angle), but by a desire to connect with like-minded others, participate, and spread the joy they’d found outdoors.
“When I lived in Ohio, Alaska, and Montana, I felt a sense of ownership of local wilderness areas and felt very protective of them. I often knew the people who were organizing the conservation actions, which made it easier as well. Now that I live in Washington, D.C., it’s kind of like all natural areas are equally important to me, and therefore none of them get any special attention. Maybe the best way to get me involved would be to figure out how I can still be active in preserving wilderness areas for places I have a connection to and focus on those.”
- Jefferson, Washington, D.C.
Building support for the next 50 years of wilderness would mean embracing new technology, evolving culture, and a more authentic way of spreading the story of wild places.
To connect with and mobilize the audience identified through our research, we designed a converged, content-first campaign for TWS that combined the power of PR, the Internet, and social media to tell the stories that were missing from the ongoing conversation.
We called it We Are The Wild, and it was designed to do three things:
The idea was to produce new original content, distribute it to a very focused target audience, and encourage that audience to participate by submitting their own content, beginning the cycle all over again.
The initial objective was to obtain at least 250 pieces of user-generated content submitted through the campaign’s hashtag (#WeAreTheWild).
The hub of the We Are The Wild campaign—the place all other media would point to and the tool that would enable participation by the target market—was built as a new subsection of TWS’ website, wilderness.org.
The hub, at wilderness.org/wild, was designed, built, and deployed in early 2014, and the converged media strategy to drive traffic and interest was launched alongside.
On TWS owned social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, we created images that juxtaposed quotes about wilderness with compelling imagery, and linked to the hub.
Each regional office of TWS was given a We Are The Wild brand book, and used channels and connections unique to each regional communications team to spread the word.
Finally, a collection of We Are The Wild videos was produced featuring celebrities such as singer Lance Bass, author Cheryl Strayed, and actor William H. Macy. The videos highlighted each celebrity’s personal story about wild places, and included calls to action to join the movement and share at wilderness.org/wild. The videos were published to TWS’ YouTube channel, shared across social channels, and featured on wilderness.org.
The 50th anniversary launch events, celebrity We Are The Wild videos, and burgeoning collection of #WeAreTheWild stories were distributed not only through TWS’ “mothership” Facebook and Twitter accounts, but also through its many regional offices’ social channels. In addition, partners at the regional level helped spread the word through their individual owned social channels.
The PR team hit the streets at launch, earning press coverage and social media mentions across industries. Celebrity participants joined in, tweeting links to their videos and using the hashtag.
With these influencers as kindling, the social media fire was lit and the #WeAreTheWild trend began building steam. SEO efforts meant that a Google search landed users directly on the We Are The Wild hub at wilderness.org/wild.
The budget for paid media support was fairly small for a national campaign, which necessitated a focused, purposeful, and extremely well-targeted placement strategy. We settled on YouTube for a pre-roll video partner, using the celebrity We Are The Wild story videos as content and paying only when users decided to watch an ad.
The video ads were targeted in two verticals: users who were interested in each individual celebrity, and users who were interested in wilderness, the outdoors, and environmental causes. When Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild was adapted for the big screen in an Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, we released a new video featuring Laura and targeted users searching for news about the film and timed the spend to coincide with the interest spike in the Academy Awards.
Through a converged strategy, a limited paid budget was leveraged together with owned and partner channels to create a real impact in the marketplace.
The We Are The Wild campaign helped drive significant growth in TWS’ key performance indicators across the board, including a 600% increase in Facebook followers, a 15% increase in total web traffic year-over-year, and more than 20,000 new members in 2014.
The YouTube pre-roll campaign generated 180,000 paid views and tens of thousands of earned views on budget of less than $35k, for a cost per view of less than 20¢. In addition, click-through rates were through the roof compared to industry averages for pre-roll video ads, generating 6,629 clicks to wilderness.org/wild at a staggering 0.40% CTR.
And in a social landscape oversaturated with calls to provide user-generated content, the personal and emotional messaging of We Are The Wild broke through the noise and resonated with the target audience. Thousands of people took the time to upload photos and add a written story, reaching the goal of 250 pieces of UGC many times over. Submissions now literally cover the country, and the campaign has reached a critical mass of self-sustainability, with new mentions of the #WeAreTheWild hashtag occurring daily even long after paid and partner campaign support has ended.
With a combination of paid, earned, and owned media built on a solid foundation of insights gained through original research, MERCURYcsc was able to help The Wilderness Society successfully change course, pointing the organization into the future and activating an entire new generation of wilderness advocates.