Home Blogs Did Anthill’s “sponsored message from the future” outrage or delight you?

Did Anthill’s “sponsored message from the future” outrage or delight you? [Case Study: pURLs]


Last week, Anthill emailed a ‘sponsored satirical message from the future’ to 9,000 members of its 14,000-strong eNewsletter database. The message informed recipients of their success winning a fictional award from the year 2012. James Tuckerman shares the outcomes of Anthill’s exploration into personalised URLs (pURLs).

Imagine this scenario.

You are sitting at your desk, reading emails, when the following subject-line catches your eye:

James Tuckerman named
Entrepreneur Champion

However, instead of the words ‘James Tuckerman’ the email features your name. Yes, it’s about you!

You open the email to find the message reiterated, coupled with the heading:

A sponsored satirical exploration
of marketing from the future

Naturally, there’s a link to ‘Click here and read the full story’ and curiosity gets the better of you.

After clicking the link, you discover a webpage dedicated, once again, to yours truly.

It features an interview.

Apparently, sometime in the year 2012, Anthill’s “time travelling, roving reporter and anonymous ant esquire, Ant Antagonist”, caught up with you, “at a secret lunar location”, to discuss your success in 2011. Are you going insane? What the heck is happening!

What is a personal URL? (pURL)

Described above is a truncated description of a sponsored promotion that Anthill coordinated last week on behalf of TheOnlineBusiness.com.au.

While a bulk-mailed, personalised email is familiar to most of us, this campaign took the concept one step further by creating a bulk-mailed, personalised webpage — a personalised and fictional article about the recipient.

Sometimes called personalised URLs (or pURLSs), the tactic has been around for years, often to mixed effect.

In 2007, it was notoriously employed to promote Showtime’s television program about vigilante serial killer Dexter, involving a news clip designed to make the recipient believe that he or she was likely to be a serial killer’s “next victim”. (You can imagine how that played out in panic-prone North America.)

More recently, Western Australian outfit MessagesOnHold also employed a similar campaign, treating its email list with a cleverly produced personalised video informing recipients of their candidacy for Prime Minister 2010 (prompting smiles all ’round).

The distinction between these two examples and the campaign employed by Anthill largely relates to complexity. And cost.

The above examples cost their makers tens of thousands of dollars to produce (and it is evident in their execution). However, as a media outlet favoured by growing SMEs, Anthill’s promotion was developed to present a more modest (and, therefore, attainable) execution.

The above campaign was organised and executed in a matter of days. The technique is not particularly expensive and within reach of most small-to-medium enterprises.

How did Anthill readers react?

The wide distribution of a bold, fictitious article is always going to raise some eyebrows, particularly when the subject of the article is none other than the reader. Or, rather, when the subject of the article is, in fact, thousands of individual readers.

If you were among the 9,219 Anthill people who were sent this email (or among the several hundred more who received the email from a friend), you will know how you reacted.

You may have responded like the many people who pinged us emails to congratulate us on what they considered a cleverly executed campaign, featuring comments such as, “This is hilarious and very clever!” and “Thanks for putting a smile on my dial!” Or simply, “Nice!”

Indeed, many readers were generous with their praise (only equaled by their generous use of the exclamation symbol).

Or, you may have wanted to respond like one un-subscriber who felt impassioned enough to send us this message, all in capital letters: “I WOULD PREFER NOT TO RECEIVE THIS CRAP!”

Then, there was the startled reader who called our office asking to speak to the journalist who conducted the interview. (To tell the full story, she actually called our fax machine.)

While it was tempting to explain that Anthill’s time travelling, roving reporter and anonymous ant esquire was currently on assignment in the year 2036 and perhaps could call her back last week, we did the sensible thing and put this poor caller at ease.

Never trust the vocal few

Naturally, the casual observer, on hearing these developments, might think, ‘Sure you got some good feedback. But it could hardly be worth those examples of anger and confusion you describe.’

Well, once upon a time, we would have agreed. In year’s gone by, responses like these, in combination, would have prompted a conflicting mix of anxiety and glee at our end.

Yet, if there is one lesson that our shift from print to digital publishing has taught us, which almost supersedes all others, is that it’s simply too easy to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the vocal few. And the beauty of online marketing is that everything (well, almost everything) is measurable.

One dissenter does not reflect the status quo. One ardent fan does not represent the broader readership. And we all know that the person (or organisation) who tries to please everyone will, ultimately, please no-one.

Sure, critical views, even if not shared by the majority, often contain wisdom that should be observed and implemented. (At the same time, an excitedly enthusiastic suggestion by your ‘greatest fan’ might also prove nothing more than an expensive time-waster.)

But nothing compares to the hard data.

The hard data: Did it work?

When implementing a campaign of this nature, every business is likely to set its own goals.

In our world, the metrics were simple.

We decided to test three:

  1. Email open rates,
  2. Email click-through rates and, importantly,
  3. Unsubscription numbers.

The following graph articulates responses in percentage form.

Because Anthill is able to segment its email database into different reader groups, this chart highlights the outcomes from 10 different lists.

If you are wondering how more than 100% of recipients can open an email as occurred in the second cluster of column, this measure is of ‘all opens’, not just ‘unique opens’.

For example, some recipients clearly felt compelled to open the email more than once (which is not surprising, given the ‘double-take’ its subject-line was more than capable of inducing).

Also, this chart doesn’t articulate the quantity of recipients represented by each group.

So, to gather meaningful results, we tallied the averages (drum roll please):

Open rate: 47.83%
Click-through rate: 19.25%
(approximately 60% of people who opened clicked-through)

Even the most inexperienced marketer or the most digitally illiterate business owner will appreciate the strength of these outcomes. By any measure, they are not just strong.

They are outstanding.

What about unsubscriptions?

But what about our third metric?


A high open-rate means nothing if recipients are merely opening the email to unsubscribe. An outstanding click-through rate means nothing if the destination webpage causes outrage and a ‘mass opt-out event’.

Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Once again, here’s the hard data.

Of the 9,219 emails distributed, a total of 27 people unsubscribed.

This represents 0.29% of the list.

In our experience, this is insignificant. In fact, it could be argued that a greater percentage of people change employment (and, therefore, email addresses) per week. Twenty-seven also coincidentally mirrors the number of new email subscribers we receive per day.

In other words, the measurable fall-out was negligible.

Learning experiences

While the top-line results were obviously positive, we’ve already been asked (and asked ourselves), ‘What would Anthill do differently next time?’

From this side of the monitor, there are two things that we would do to improve the outcomes. The first demonstrates what a future thinking bunch of digital doyens we are at Anthill. The second demonstrates our capacity to be absolute digital dummies of the highest order.

1. Focus on the ‘Sharable’

We’re constantly asking ourselves internally how we can leverage social media and other mechanisms to make our content more ‘sharable’.

If a business can empower its customers (or readers) to share its information, it empowers these people to do its marketing for it.

While many people retweeted their personal (albeit fictional) accolade and ‘Liked’ their personalised webpage in order to spread awareness of their future stardom on Facebook and other social media channels, these actions created a link to a generic page that was not properly exploited. For example, to name yourself Entrepreneur Champion 2011 (and check out the generic default page), click here.

In hindsight, the social media potential of pURLs is almost endless, offering the potential to create an ongoing cycle of participants referring friends and friends referring friends.

And that’s exciting!

2. Clean your lists

While the above potential improvement demonstrates an awareness of social media trends (yes, aren’t we clever), the second potential improvement highlights the dark side of direct marketing and the depths of our own dopiness.

In short, any direct marketing effort depends on the quality of the list. And part of a list’s quality depends on its cleanliness.

No, I’m not suggesting that you give your list a bath. Of course, I’m talking about the quality of the data. And, in this instance, we failed to ensure that all names were complete, which is kind of important when using  pURLs.

For example, when an email list is not thoroughly checked for data-entry inaccuracies, John Smith may potentially receive an email with the subject-line ‘John_ named Entrepreneur Champion’, while Betty Jones may receive an email with the similarly confusing heading ‘Betty Betty Jones Jones named Entrepreneur Champion’.

Fortunately, data inaccuracies such as these were only limited to a few. But the experience, nevertheless, presents itself as another cautionary tale in the ever-evolving world of digital marketing. Keep your lists clean. (And let Anthill make your daft mistakes for you!)

The Wrap Up

Over the next few weeks, data captured from the campaign will provide further insights into the campaign’s effectiveness and the possibilities of pURL.

For example, TheOnlineBusiness.com.au employs proprietary technology to track user activity online, such as time on site, forwards, click to associated links and other online interactions.

The commercial purpose of the campaign from TheOnlineBusiness.com.au’s perspective was to showcase the service as a tool for growing SMEs to exploit, using their own databases and creative flair. (To get a quote, put yourself through the pURL process and complete the online calculator or visit the website).

The true value of the tool is its ability to isolate leads from interested customers based on the time and number of ways they interact with the personalised webpage. How that works is a post for another day.

From Anthill’s perspective, it’s not hard to see how such a tool can be used by SMEs to great effect. However, any pURL campaign’s success will depend on the creativity of the message as it relates to the target audience. The rest can be outsourced.

And, from my perspective, creativity among Australian SMEs, particularly those participating in Anthill’s online community, is hardly lacking.

Know that you know the numbers, did Anthill’s campaign outrage or delight you?

To put yourself through the pURL process and get named Entrepreneur Champion 2011, click here.