Celebs Messaging To Fight Autism

December 19, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

If you find yourself getting a recorded message this holiday season from the likes of Morgan Freeman, Tom Hanks or William Shatner, you might have a friend who’s supporting Autism Speaks.

Sound Off for Autism Speaks raised more than $100,000 within a week, by selling nearly a dozen celebrities for $299 each. With a limit of 50 recorded messages per celebrity, the campaign had a maximum potential of $150,000.

Marc Sirkin, chief digital marketing officer at Autism Speaks, admits he was pretty skeptical. In hindsight, it was successful because it was simple and offered the opportunity to interact in a way with high-quality celebrities, he said. “As we built momentum with celebrities, we got serious about what we would charge, how it would work. We were shocked,” he said.

“We didn’t do a lot of testing, other than debating it as much as possible. At the end of the day, we learned a lot,” Sirkin said. “It was a really interesting experiment.”

Sirkin came up with the idea after brainstorming with Matt Asner, an Autism Speaks executive director in Los Angeles, who also happens to be the son of actor Ed Asner. They didn’t know who might participate or what price they might charge but with the help of Ed Asner, they started sending letters to celebrities they thought might be help. The planning took a few months with about six weeks of concentrated effort leading up to the Dec. 3-9 online sale. They sold more than 350 out of a potential 500 recordings, with Morgan Freeman selling out in a matter of hours, Sirkin said.

Once they got Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and Patrick Stewart, they focused on celebrities with serious fan communities. “Who’s active on Twitter and social media, that’s how we created the first list, not just who’s big,” Sirkin said.

Other celebrities participating included Derek Jeter, Ed Asner, Betty White, Will Ferrell, Carrie Fisher and Leonard Nimoy. There were some restrictions (no commercials) on what could be included in the 20-second message and the actors had ultimate veto power.

The dozen or so celebrities didn’t have any relationship to Autism Speaks previously, said Sirkin, only that they were asked by colleague Ed Asner, who has grandchildren with autism. “Being asked by Ed Asner helped quite a lot,” he said, and it as an innovative and fun thing to do.

Sirkin said they considered everything, from price points ranging from $99 to $499 to auctions and generic or custom messages. “Since it was our first time out, we leaned on the principle of less is more,” he said. They might test an auction model in the future but that might have been hard to manage 50 messages with each celebrity coming in at different levels. They’re also considering fewer celebrities but more options, aiming for higher engagement from celebrities, according to Sirkin.

“The hard work starts now,” Sirkin said. He’s hoping to have the recordings completed and sent to buyers within four to eight weeks. “You really have to manage this part of it,” Sirkin said, as celebrities are giving up two to three hours to complete the recordings.