From Basement Kegger to Travel Channel Feature [Case Study]

Once upon a time in 2005, three roommates in the Brookside area of Kansas City, Missouri held a party in their basement. They gathered a bunch of friends, served a lot of beer and most importantly had a theme – ugly Christmas sweaters! Their guests wore the tackiest, craziest sweaters they could find and for three annual parties these guys setup, drank up and cleaned up – a lot of hard work just for their friends. After their 2007 event, during the cleanup portion, these guys decided to put all their hard work to good use and changed the event into a fundraiser. Thus was born The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party!

I won’t go into the full details of the startup and decision-making – you can read about that on the event website. What I want to focus on is how they went from this basement kegger party and became so known that the Travel Channel filmed them for the upcoming “Christmas Crazier” special! Now in its 8th year, this event has sold out every year it’s been a fundraiser and should exceed $100,000 in donations to Operation Breakthrough after this year’s event – and it all grew through the use of digital assets.

A Strong Foundation

The first thing these guys did was gather a group of like-minded individuals to help them plan. Unfortunately, being mostly 20-somethings, the budget for the first year was fairly non-existent – whatever came out of their own pockets for any given need was what was spent. Thankfully, two individuals from the group – Ramsey Mohsen and I – work for a pretty great company (DEG) who took on the digital aspects of the event on a pro bono basis. So, a few of the major components that made for a great digital foundation were born:

  • A Strong Website: Designed by an amazing graphic artist the Ugly Sweater website personifies the very idea of the event – it looks like a tacky holiday sweater! It includes all the details you could possibly need about the event, online registration, email sign-up and even a Rent-A-Sweater area. People who have never been to the event have seen this website and comment on its “perfection of ugly”.
  • Online Registration – ONLY: To avoid the hassle of real tickets, mailing costs for invitations and reply cards, and the need for phone and data entry “staff”, registration for the event was kept strictly to online registration. There are no “at the door” sales, no checks or cash to mess with – just credit cards through a website. Since the main demographic of the event is mid-20s to late-30s, this was in keeping with the attendees’ preferred registration methods and apparently hasn’t hurt the event attendance at all – it is sold out every year (and with 4 weeks until this year’s event, it’s already 45% sold and should reach capacity in 2012 as well).
  • Email is King: Much of the regular event updates are handled via email, which are also posted automatically to Facebook & Twitter (more on social below). The mailing list includes well over 1,100 people – nearly 3x as many as can attend. The emails have an average 30% open rate (really good) and an almost non-existent unsubscribe rate (less than 1%).

Social Sweaters

The oh-so-socially-savvy Ramsey Mohsen (he IS the director of Social Media at DEG so he really does “get it”) leads the social media efforts of this group and has helped grow the Facebook and Twitter followings as well as experimented with video, ads and other media outlets to help get the word out. These are a few of the tactics the event has used:

  • Status Lending: Several times during key registration times, the full steering committee is asked to lend their statuses to the cause. simultaneous, similar posts are seen popping up urging friends and family members, coworkers and acquaintances to purchase their tickets, make donations and become sponsors.
  • Video baby! Having been one of the first “life casters” in the Midwest and a regular video-blogger, Ramsey knows the importance of video. He has posted some crazy videos over the years encouraging participation in the event and bringing awareness to Operation Breakthrough. To date, I think the funniest and most effective video was “Dancing Badly All Over Kansas City…for a Good Cause” – I particularly enjoy when random people join him! You sort of need to watch it to get it:
  • Facebook Post Promotion: Recently, Facebook made it possible to promote individual status updates so that they will be featured in the news stream of people who meet specified criteria. The post shown here was promoted and the viral effect was amazing. Unpromoted posts are typically seen by 100 to 600 people – this one was seen by OVER 10,000, for just a $10 investment.
  • Personal Emails: For sponsors and donors, the steering committee connects directly to potential participants with solicitations via email and phone calls. Very few “mass emails” are sent but rather they are individual, personal messages specific to the donor and speak to the connection between them and the beneficiary (not the event!).
  • Photos, photos, photos: The event has always had an official photographer, media photographers, amateur photographers (like yours truly), and a photo booth. And the resulting photos are posted to Flickr, multiple Facebook & Twitter accounts, the website, Instragram and anywhere else people will look for photos. Unfortunately, some of these photos are stolen for other similar events, but in most cases they all lead back to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party in Kansas City.
  • Location tips: On Foursquare, tips have been left on the Tower Tavern page stating that it’s the home of the party. and those tips have been read and liked.
  • Combining sales with prizes: As I already wrote earlier this month, the event gave weekly prizes during the month of October to encourage early ticket sales. The sales and promotion were pushed through weekly reminder emails and social media updates, with the final winner actually getting the most attention on the site.

Travel Channel Feature

On Sunday, November 25, during your Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the Travel Channel will roll out a new special entitled “Christmas Crazier”. As it states on TVGuide.com: “A look at over-the-top ways to celebrate Christmas. Included: a display of lights in a Brooklyn neighborhood; a holiday party with an ugly sweater theme; and a seven-course meal that has become a tradition in Yosemite National Park in California.” Bet you can guess pretty easily which holiday party they’re featuring!

In 2011, a production team came to the event, interviewed Ramsey and others, filmed the event including the awarding of trophies and will feature it in this holiday special! This was definitely a bucket list item for the event, but it wasn’t something the steering committee went looking for or asked the Travel Channel to do – they found us! This, to me, is the power of the Internet and leveraging social networking and other digital assets to reach new heights for your events.

Please make plans to watch this feature next Sunday evening at 7 PM CST or set your DVR – this is one Travel Channel feature you won’t want to miss!

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