In My Own Words: Birthing a Yahoo! Purple People Greeter

Thankfully, many of us who work at Yahoo! believe that we have the best job in the company. If I based my hubris on other people who tell me I have the best job at Yahoo!, I see experiential marketing rise above all others to the top of the heap.

I lead a small team that is responsible for complementing and amplifying marketing projects — for consumers and B2B audiences — by creating rich 1:1 experiences that provide a moment of pause, reflection, and engagement with our brand in ways that support our digital marketing efforts, but provide a differentiated offline approach. These experiences establish emotional bonds between our audience and Yahoo!’s products and services, and put a human “face” to our brand in a way that online marketing may not.

Some of the recent projects we have supported include 2010’s Ask America program and 2011’s launch of the latest Yahoo! Mail. We also get to think hard about brand marketing challenges like how to keep Yahoo!’s trademark “yodel” in the hearts and minds of consumers. On our plate for the coming year are efforts to engage voters across the country with Yahoo! News in the countdown to the presidential election, launching Tom Hanks’ “Electric City,” and global marketing support for the 2012 Olympics.

We hold our programs to an important set of guiding principles:

  1. Assure that every experience is built to drive traffic back to Yahoo! or change the perception of our brand
  2. Create sharable experiences and provide the tools for users to share
  3. Provide “hands-on” experiences
  4. Engage our audiences with surprising, relevant, smile-inducing experiences

No surprise that the word experience appears in every principle, right? Not every program at Yahoo! is right for experiential efforts: we are not a scalable acquisition channel, and, in fact, creating offline manifestations of our online product experiences are not always effective in public settings. Instead, we look for opportunities to draw related connections between an offline experience and our online products and services.

Perfect case in point: the 2011 launch of the latest version of Yahoo! Mail. We were a small part of the overall launch marketing plan for the product, but we were an extremely visible component. Our objective was specifically not to provide users with a chance to try the new Mail. Instead, our role was to alleviate potential apprehension about the planned migration from older versions of Mail to the new version—and we wanted to drive positive buzz and word of mouth by creating a fun experience that would enhance consumers' personal connection to the product and leave them with the feeling that "Yahoo! is the best thing that happened to me today." In other words: kindness always wins, while talking about our spam protection on a street corner may not.

Our solution was two-pronged.  First, we dispatched 20 Yahoo! Mail Carriers (kitted out bike messengers) in Chicago and New York who were tasked with creating that random act of kindness. They handed unsuspecting users a large Yahoo! Mail “super envelope” that contained something for them — a Starbucks gift card, or a packet of wildflower seeds — and an additional duplicate gift for them to share with a friend. This interaction brought to life the Yahoo! Mail promise that the product facilitated connections with those people who matter most to you. Consumers loved the surprising gift from Yahoo! Mail, and they shared the gifts and their positive experience with their friends and family.

The second prong of our approach became a viral sensation — internally amongst fellow Yahoos who were busting a nut to launch the new Mail; and externally with consumers who got to interact with a 6-foot-tall talking purple mailbox.

Yes, you heard me. A talking mailbox, affectionately dubbed The Yahoo! Purple People Greeter, who stood on street corners in Brooklyn and Manhattan doling out bon mots, along with personally relevant gifts in a Yahoo! Mail super envelope: a pair of flip flops for someone on their way to buy shoes, a harmonica for a musician, a dog bone for a pet owner, and an iPad for a grad student. How did an inanimate purple box know enough to have such relevant gifts on hand, who to distribute them to, or just what to say to make people laugh, jump and even cry with joy? That’s a secret the experiential team will take to our grave. Or, you could just take us to lunch and we’ll probably give up the goods.

But most importantly, the experience worked. We made people’s days. We heard, and kept, some deep dark secrets. But most importantly, we turned our interactions with a relatively small number of individuals into compelling, hilarious, highly entertaining video content, which we then distributed on Yahoo! and via social channels.

After our rewarding experience in New York, we hit the road with our large purple friend. To Chicago where the mailbox sweltered and relied on the cold water of strangers, to Austin where he rocked out at Emo’s and tried (unsuccessfully) to crowd surf during a performance by Futurebirds, and ultimately to San Francisco where we arrived just in time to fuel Giants playoff fever with many sets of tickets to the World Series champs’ final games of the season.

Our social media channels loved the Purple Mailbox and we generated significant positive sentiment for Yahoo! Mail and our brand as a whole. We turned these impromptu consumer experiences into high-quality digital content that drove engagement with our brand both on- and off-network. And we gave employees an opportunity to laugh, cheer and smile during a transitional time for our company.

Our competitors don’t have a purple talking mailbox who makes people laugh. Nor do they regularly engage consumers in surprising, yet relevant offline locales. Yahoo! understands that marketing takes on many forms, and they all work together to drive success for our company and engagement with our users. Especially those that are six-feet-tall and purple. I love my job.

Andrew Strickman,
Sr. Director, Experiential Marketing


Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series entitled, “In My Own Words,” that gives employees the opportunity to share their own stories about Yahoo!. Feel like yodeling your own? Post your Yahoo! story on your social networks using the hashtag #myYahoostory.