Last November, Britt Farrar — Senior Manager for Social Media Strategy at CarMax — got caught up in a viral moment.
Britt's role at CarMax is to research, direct, and oversee implementation of social media across the organization. Their social team includes an internal team that works with their always-on social content and their marketing and advertising activations. “But we don't do a lot of real-time,” says Britt.
And then came “Greenie,” the 1996 used Honda that changed everything.
“When we really took notice of Greenie, it had already gone viral,” says Britt. By the time the team at CarMax had seen it, the video the producer made to sell his girlfriend's Honda, ‘Greenie,' had three million views on YouTube and was getting national news coverage.
Last year, CarMax started their “We Buy All the Cars” campaign to drive awareness for their promise to buy your car in any condition, any year, and any make or model. So, when word of Greenie reached their newsfeeds, one of Britt's team members said, “Wouldn't it be great if we could buy his car?”
“When we saw this, we knew we needed to act fast,” says Britt. “We wanted to make a legitimate offer for his car and see if we could buy Greenie.”
Britt hopped on a call with their PR manager, creative agency, and creative lead to figure out what it was going to take to buy the car.
“When we first briefed the team, our creative agency — McKinney — got on the phone and said, ‘Let's even buy the effing cat.' We were all-in. We wanted everything featured in the video. So that's how we got the premise for our response,” says Britt.
They went back and started storyboarding the idea while Britt got leadership's approval to go after the opportunity and the video producer's offer. “We got the greenlight with our leadership in less than an hour,” says Britt. The final script made an official offer to him for CarMax to buy Greenie — as well as the coffee-maker, fuzzy jacket, coffee mug, and even the cat featured in the video — for $20,000.
Then the creative agency set about making the video — “and it is such a scrappy video,” says Britt. The now famous viral video was filmed in McKinney's CEO's office using one of their copywriters, not hired talent. So Britt and her team were able to turn around their real-time campaign in record time. “From the moment we said we were going to go after this to when we got a response from him on Twitter, it was maybe 30 hours,” Britt explains.
Britt and her team put the video up on their Twitter and YouTube channels and watched the views and media-mentions pour in.
The video was an instant hit, but Britt and her team knew there were risks with what would happen next.
“We hadn't had any contact with the producer prior to releasing the video,” Britt says. They had researched who he was and looked at his feed to see if anyone else was making an offer. By the time CarMax had published their video, no one had publicly made an offer, and he hadn't indicated that he had been offered anything.
“But there was definitely a risk that he already had an idea of how he was going to end the story,” explains Britt. “There was a risk that, yes, somebody else had beat us to the punch. We were willing to take those risks because, if anything, it was a great exercise for us to see if we could flex this real-time muscle. And no matter what, we still came out with a message that we buy all the cars.”
Then the producer replied back to CarMax, and they kicked off negotiations.
“We made a point to really think about what our response would be. But what we hadn't really thought about was what was going to be next,” Britt says. “We had to think about what it was going to take to close the deal.”
So they got on the phone with him to enter into the next step of their campaign. “We always intended to give him $20,000,” says Britt. “But we also legitimately wanted all the things that came with it. So we ended up talking to him for a couple of days about what he was looking to get out of this and how we could close the story together.”
Britt and her team were able to accomplish this while sticking to CarMax's values — including the seven-day window that his girlfriend had to sell Greenie at any CarMax location and receiving all of the items they wanted from the video (though they gave a $5,000 donation to a cat shelter in lieu of receiving the cat in the video).
But no matter how negotiations had turned out, the real-time social campaign was a success for CarMax.
The CarMax PR team got 232 local and national media placements with a reach of over three million from the Greenie video. And the campaign was covered by Adweek, USA Today, Thrillist, and other prominent publications.
“The other thing that we had not necessarily planned on, but was a great surprise, was that we saw a lift during that time in our aided brand awareness,” says Britt. “Now, we weren't able to say that was definitely Greenie that drove the lift, but Greenie contributed to it.”
So how did Britt and her team pull it off so quickly, and what would her advice be to others looking to flex their real-time muscle?
As Britt explains it, the campaign was so efficient because they knew exactly who was responsible for what, who the decision makers were, and who needed to give final approval. “So we weren't tripping up on who all has to see this — we had already gotten that down to a pretty succinct group. They were all on-board, and I was given that runway.”
For companies thinking of expanding more into real-time campaigns, Britt advises: “Think through the calculated risks that your organization and your brand are willing to take, and go after those moments. They really pay off. Not only in terms of brand awareness, but just in the learnings of trying something new and trying something different.”