Australian entrepreneur Mark Harbottle was caught by surprise recently when his site, 99Designs, was nominated for the prestigious Webby Awards. The company ended up taking out the People’s Choice award, voted on by users instead of the official panel, ahead of huge names such as Dropbox and Tumblr.
Harbottle says he was able to take out the most votes even though his user-base was much smaller by leveraging the existing community the company had built on the site.
Had you any experience with the Webby Awards before this?
This was our first time entering the Webby Awards. I actually didn’t know about it until we were in and nominated. It was a surprise to me, but not a surprise to the guy whose job it is to put our name out there. Obviously we try and push the brand hard… so he was doing his job.
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Out of all the companies that were entered, we were certainly quite shocked. We were extremely proud, and didn’t expect it at all.
Why were you so shocked at the difference between your company and the others nominated?
We’ve got roughly 200,000 registered users. When you compare that to Dropbox and Tumblr which have millions of users each, we are a fair way behind in that regard. But I think the difference is that for Dropbox users, they don’t earn money from that site. Our users earn income, and therefore I think they have more engagement. We had that working for us.
What were your first thoughts when you thought you had a chance to win?
We sat down and thought, we have a certain time to get people’s votes for the people’s choice award. We knew the competitors were much bigger than us, so we knew we had to be savvy with our approach to our marketing campaign.
We worked out a plan so that we could catch out our competitors by surprise.
We knew that if we just went to our community publically and asked them to vote, then Tumblr and Dropbox could react to that do the same thing. We didn’t want them to beat us out.
How did you approach the marketing campaign then?
We planned our promotional activities within the last few days of voting, and didn’t do anything beforehand. It was a campaign designed to ramp up, so to speak, and catch them by surprise.
The Webby Awards turned off voting on the last day, so you can’t actually see who is winning. So with Dropbox, all they would have to do is send out a tweet to their audience, put a note in the newsletter and could have used numbers. We really had to get them in the last two days.
It definitely was a guessing game. As soon as they turned the score off on the last day, they had no idea we were coming.
Your plan actually ended up being quite simple. What did you do?
We really went through marketing 101 on this one. We considered all the ways we could get votes, including giving out a prize or discounts. But really, we had no way of telling if they voted, because the Webby Awards do that and not us, and we didn’t want to be perceived as having paid for votes, or trying to cheat the system.
So really, we just went and asked a favour. That’s what it boils down to. We went into the forums and so on, and just asked for them to vote. There were no benefits offered. The only thing we said was that we would film ourselves singing Queen’s “We Are the Champions” in Melbourne and post it online – and they haven’t forgotten about that!
I don’t think that would have been the sole reason people voted, but if they were borderline I think that might have been enough. Discounts and incentives might have been more effective, but I was worried about it from a PR standpoint. We wanted to do things above board.
Why do you think it was so successful?
I think it’s a testament to our community. We could have only done this because we speak to our community all the time anyway and we have a good relationship with them through things like Twitter and Facebook. We give them free content, free information, and we help them with their designs and so on.
As I said before, people depend on our site for income, which isn’t the case for Dropbox. So while they have more users overall, I think we had a solid engaged base of users who visit the site everyday and are actively engaged in what’s going on. They depend on it.
I don’t think we could just ask them to do that if there wasn’t a community there already. Your community is everything, and it’s like asking a favour. That really is important here, we wouldn’t have won this without them, and you have to do it the right way. If we don’t engage them then ask for them to vote for us, they won’t do it.
What advice would you have for other businesses attempting to engage their community for a cause?
If we didn’t have the trust in our community and help them make a living, they wouldn’t have done it. You have to build trust credits, or else you won’t get a response. You also can’t overdo it. If I run a campaign I don’t bog people down with stuff, you have to approach it like asking a favour from a friend. Every now and then if you’ve done something for them, then no problem, but if it’s all take and no give – then no way.