Home > Magazine > Issue 5 >

Virgin America and SU2C Team Up to Fight
Cancer Using Facebook and Twitter

By Eve Mayer Orsburn
Author of Social Media for the CEO: The Why and ROI of Social Media for the CEO of Today and Tomorrow

Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C), launched in 2008, raises funds for translational cancer research. Virgin America, a California-based airline established in 2007, is SU2C's official domestic airline partner.

In December 2010, Virgin America launched service from Los Angeles and San Francisco to the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, marking the airline's first mid-continent destination in the United States. To continue to raise funds and awareness in Texas and throughout the country for SU2C and to successfully launch Virgin America service in a new market where serious competition already existed, both organizations came together to develop an integrated social media marketing strategy.

Virgin America planned a star-studded inaugural flight and party on the ground in Dallas in its signature style. Traditional media—such as radio spots—was leveraged to promote the flight and party, while both organizations reached out to their networks via e-blast and social media channels. SU2C already had an engaged, national online community, but they had not yet participated in an event on the ground in Texas. Virgin America had an existing base of dedicated frequent flyers who were largely based on the east and west coasts. Both organizations needed a way to translate a passionate online community into a real-world event while generating new supporters.

Virgin America built a microsite to incentivize and collect donations to SU2C. A minimum $5 donation earned the benefactor a 20 percent discount on a Virgin America flight. Donors could then spread the word through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail by means of automated message options, encouraging others to follow their example. For instance, if a Dallas-based donor recruited ten friends to donate on his or her behalf, that donor received two tickets to the launch party. The deal was even sweeter (yet more challenging) for donors in San Francisco and Los Angeles: if a single donor could recruit 100 other people to donate $5, that individual and a guest earned a Virgin America flight to Dallas, hotel accommodations, and two tickets to the event. The 20 percent coupon, coupled with the opportunity to attend a once-in-a-lifetime party, helped to spread the promotion virally.

By reaching out through social media in this way, SU2C and Virgin America translated online communities into a huge event. SU2C particularly benefited from this model, because it resulted in a high number of multi-level donors; that is, people who not only give money but become the non-profit equivalent of brand ambassadors, spreading the word and awareness of the organization's cause.

SU2C secured additional media coverage by including two "celebrity ambassadors" to highlight the inaugural flight: Eric Stonestreet and Maura Tierney. The actors participated in photo ops and media interviews that highlighted SU2C, the Virgin America Dallas launch, and the overall partnership. Eric Stonestreet also tweeted about the experience.

The launch party was held at the Winspear Opera House in the Dallas Arts District. The guests turned out in their "urban cowboy" wear, the valet was complimentary, the red carpet was long, the catering was impeccable, the drinks flowed freely, and the celebrities roamed famously. Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Group, hosted an exclusive pre-party, while Willie Nelson performed in his SU2C t-shirt.

One key to the success of the initiative was the clear call to action and easily translatable message for people to share. Another key was the dialogue that grew organically online and on the ground. For example, the SU2C signing wall at the event gave guests a place to share why they donated, indicate how cancer had touched their lives, or simply show love and support. Not only was the signing wall a physical representation of how people interact in social media channels, it represented a message and a focus for people to share with their own networks. Thus, guests spontaneously pushed social media messages out to their personal Facebook, Twitter, and geolocation app networks, such as Foursquare or Facebook Places—before, during, and after the event.

SU2C and Virgin America successfully teamed up to execute a real-world event by leveraging online networks. Social media provided a way to promote the event and spread buzz for Virgin America and SU2C. As Mary Pomerantz of SU2C stated, "Social media has the power to encourage action and build a brand. Social media also helps to cultivate a culture around the brand."

Eve Mayer Orsburn

Ranked by Fast Company Magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential People Online," Eve Mayer Orsburn is the author of Social Media for the CEO: The Why and ROI of Social Media for the CEO of Today and Tomorrow. She is also CEO of Social Media Delivered, one of the largest social media optimization companies serving clients worldwide. Eve has been featured on CNN Radio and CIO.com, and she speaks professionally to groups on the "Social Media Equation," Eve's proven system for enabling organizations to effectively engage in media and generate a positive ROI. Eve shares social media knowledge every day with her online network of more than 80,000 fans, followers, and connections.