Fox’s Carmen Schwalm: Mining viral gold

Lightning doesn't often strike twice. But, in just over a year, Carmen Schwalm, marketing manager at Mississauga, Ont.-based Fox Home Entertainment Canada, spearheaded two wildly successful viral efforts that scored millions of unique hits globally, not to mention over one million free media impressions. Not bad for two DVD releases - TV shows at that.

Lightning doesn’t often strike twice. But, in just over a year, Carmen Schwalm, marketing manager at Mississauga, Ont.-based Fox Home Entertainment Canada, spearheaded two wildly successful viral efforts that scored millions of unique hits globally, not to mention over one million free media impressions. Not bad for two DVD releases – TV shows at that.

Schwalm first struck viral gold with the online game ‘StewieLive’ in 2005 to support the launch of the Family Guy special edition DVD ‘Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story.’ The game, built by Ottawa-based interactive agency Fuel Industries, riffed on Burger King’s popular Subservient Chicken model and allowed users to make Stewie do whatever they wanted – from peeing to dancing to killing his mother. It attracted over eight million unique users, surpassing everyone’s expectations.

The game wouldn’t have happened without Schwalm’s tenacious internal steering. ‘It was a pretty big idea for Canadian budgets. But she figured out how to make it happen,’ notes Sean MacPhedran, Fuel’s director of creative strategy. Schwalm says the Canadian office was relatively easy to get on board. ‘I sold it by positioning that spend as part of a total media spend. It mitigated the risks,’ she recalls. ‘Numbers talk. It’s hard to debate results.’

But she also needed buy-in from Fox’s U.S. office to make the project happen, as she needed to leverage Fox U.S.’s online group and its lawyers to check into rights issues. That was a tougher sell. ‘I did get a bit of push-back from the U.S.,’ she says, adding that the onus was on her to prove that ‘StewieLive’ was different from the online efforts the U.S. already had planned. So she made her case, persuasively supporting her claims with ROI projections. ‘I get annoying if I really believe in something.’

‘['StewieLive'] really pushed our Stewie release through the roof,’ notes boss Laura Turner, director of marketing, crediting Schwalm’s determination for securing all the necessary internal approvals. ‘Carmen looped everyone in early on. It was communicating right from the get-go.’

Schwalm augmented the ‘StewieLive’ effort with unique guerrilla tactics, including a ‘Down With Broccoli Tour’ (Stewie notoriously hates the vegetable), that entailed Family Guy-related scavenger hunts on university campuses across Canada. She also did a radio contest that let winners attend a special pre-release bar screening of the DVD. ‘We weren’t allowed to screen it at a theatre because it wasn’t a movie,’ says Schwalm, explaining the venue choice.

The success of ‘StewieLive’ made it much easier for Schwalm to sell the next big viral idea Fuel pitched: a ‘Street Fighter’-inspired multiplayer online game to support the DVD release of the first season of animated sitcom American Dad. The result was ‘American Dad vs Family Guy.’

‘It was marrying two properties, knowing they were [aimed at] the same consumer,’ Schwalm explains. It was a bigger undertaking, but this time Fox U.S. was on board as a partner from the beginning. Again, Schwalm had a big success on her hands: it attracted over two million unique plays within a month of launching.

Most of Schwalm’s day-to-day marketing efforts are more low-key. A recent example is the under-the-radar DVD release of the first four episodes of this season of 24 that hit the stores the Tuesday after they first aired on TV. ‘It was really a soft launch through circulars and accounts, so that I didn’t step on the toes of Global,’ says Schwalm. She quietly secured retailer support for the release, like flyer space and POP. The launch wound up exceeding internal expectations.

Schwalm works closely with retailers on supporting new releases, as well as on pushing Fox’s extensive back catalogue, which includes the rights to the MGM catalogue with over 4,000 titles. ‘Right now, [Fox Canada] is leading [DVD] growth because we work the catalogue like no one else,’ says Schwalm. ‘Getting [customers] excited about The Sound of Music and to list it again is the big thing.’ To make relisting appealing, Schwalm does a lot of account-specific promos (ASPs), like customized packaging and special pricing. ’24 is a perennial seller,’ she says, adding that while retailers are all over the current season, it’s not always easy keeping older seasons in-store. ‘We manage to get all four seasons at Costco by bundling it with a hat and T-shirt.’

Schwalm holds a bachelor of commerce in information management systems from UBC, and fell into marketing in 1997 when a post at Molson caught her eye. Her role was to support brands from a data perspective, and crunch numbers to assess the success of campaigns and promos. She noticed that many of her Molson colleagues had packaged goods experience, so she actively sought a CPG role for her next move. She wound up at H.J. Heinz Company of Canada, first at its Calgary office, then in Toronto. It was there that Schwalm mastered working closely with retailers to get prime shelf space, and at one point was even able to convince customers to waive their listings fee for some of Heinz’s seasonal appetizers.

As well as being a bit of a self-professed numbers geek, Schwalm is an avid pop culture aficionado, making her move to Fox’s marketing department in 2004 an ideal way to satisfy both of her passions.

One area Schwalm would like to focus more on is cross-promotions. It’s tough though, she laments, because her new DVD release dates aren’t fixed (they vary depending on theatrical performance), and her deadlines often move too quickly for CPG. She has managed to do a few, including a promo with Triaminic cold medicine around the release of Ice Age: The Meltdown. Triaminic tagged the movie in its advertising – including TV, online and POP – and Fox inserted a Triaminic coupon in the DVD. It was a win-win arrangement, landing $500,000 worth of extra media for Fox.

Schwalm’s big focus for the spring is the much-anticipated DVD release of Borat. ‘We’re trying to do some outrageous things. One of them is an ASP in Canada. I don’t have approval yet – from our lawyers, to be honest.’ If her persuasive track record is any indication, it’s safe to say we’ll get to see her zany promos in the near future. As Borat might say: ‘Very nice, very nice. ‘

FIVE QUESTIONS

Favourite book

Blindness by Jose Saramago. It details the total breakdown of society in the face of an epidemic of white blindness. It’s both terrifying and gripping…and makes you question how you would react.

Favourite TV show of all time

Arrested Development. I tell you ‘there’s money in the Banana Stand!’ One of the most brilliant comedies of all time. I actually signed the online petition to get Arrested when the show was on the brink of cancellation, and I still hold out hope that the DVD sales will bring it back…. A girl can dream!

Favourite magazine

Lucky – the magazine about shopping. A fashion magazine with ONLY fashion and NONE of the advice on life/relationship issues of other female-targeted magazines.

Favourite website

www.sp-studio.de/ for fun. It lets you create South Park characters of all your coworkers. I personally am sending up their average user time.

Favourite vacation spot

So many places, so little time. New York City. Or Saskatchewan (home). I love to visit my family. There is no place like home.