Special Report: Tech or Treat

October 1, 2001       Craig Causer      

Over the last 50 years many of the grand Halloween traditions have been taken to the grave. Rarely does one go outhouse tipping in response to failing to receive a treat. Children today sport lifelike latex headpieces and appendages rather than the stifling plastic mask and smock combo of 1970s yore. And who can forget spinning their Monster Mash 45 rpm on the trusty RCA record player?

As little as four years ago it seemed that UNICEF’s Trick-or-Treat (TOT) program might be going the way of that 45 rpm. The half century-old stalwart – You remember Danny Kaye instructing “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” – was facing stagnant numbers and a new generation that had not been properly acquainted with the program.

With a combination of test groups, a more user-involved Web site and the utilization of modern technology UNICEF has reinvigorated the TOT brand, becoming a graveyard smash while reaping the benefits of increased donations.

“In the ’98 campaign we were distributing about 1.6 million boxes and raising around the $2 million mark,” recounted Susan Power, director of the TOT program for UNICEF in New York City. “To be honest, the program had gotten light for many, many years. It was at that $2 million fundraising mark for a number of years – one year a little less, a little bit more another year.”

To energize the program, UNICEF researched the history of the internal program, as well as who was participating in the past and how often those participants contributed. Focus groups quizzed teachers and parents on their feelings regarding TOT and uncovered services that the program had been lacking.

From that data, the nonprofit constructed a more involved interactive Web site. E-cards could be sent from the site and the cornerstone of the program, the UNICEF coin collection boxes, was made available for download.

The number of TOT actions that were taken on the site, which includes downloading the box to sending an e-card, increased by more than 7,000 percent in 2000, compared to 1999, according to Lori Schroeter, director of the Internet at UNICEF. Schroeter attributed the increase to “providing a fresh online brand with materials that complement our traditional approach.”

Michael Cervino, a dir ector with CommerceOnce, an Arlington, Va., consulting firm involved with the project, admitted that, “We understood from the beginning that the Trick-or-Treat program had strong recognition – but more limited than it had in past years. It had the fundamental elements of a successful multi-channel campaign. They had grassroots support from teachers, students and parents. It had organizational support and funding. It had a media component for promotion, advertising, radio and commercials. Adding the Internet to that mix was a way to provide a direct engagement channel for more people to get involved.”

What increased involvement was the ease at which the Internet allowed tasks to be completed. The user is now able to get the box without the inconvenience of locating a participating outlet. UNICEF found success in that it increased its distribution channel for boxes. The volume of boxes that they previously distributed through traditional channels was large but somewhat limited.

“We now distribute boxes a number of different ways,” explained Power. “One way is through retail partnerships. This October our retail partnerships are Pier One Imports and IKEA, plus a number of local supermarket chains. The other way is providing people with access to our Web site where they can request the boxes to be mailed to them. They can also call an 800 number and make that request.”

The new and improved Web site represented a channel for greater outreach and for distribution of materials in a more cost-effective way and less reliant on staff, Cervino said. That cost-effectiveness has helped grow the program to a point that by October UNICEF plans on distributing 6 million boxes and raising $6 million. Not all of the 6 million boxes put in circulation are actually used.

The re-branding of the traditional TOT program began in 1998 and suffered the typical peaks and valleys of life on the Web. In its first year the site was focused on securing direct online donations and while a large audience was engaged, the number of online donations was somewhat limited, Cervino said.

Last year the site was re-launched with all of its current elements in place. Due to the popularity of the e-cards, the Web version of the box and the availability of educational materials donations increased, as did the participation in offline activities.

“I think the program’s reinvigoration has been so successful because we’ve worked very hard to deliver the specific things that people said they needed – things that can be used on or offline – like the curricula, interactivity and enabling teachers to expand the program,” Schroeter said.

It generally takes two to three years of consistent Internet efforts for a program to see significant results, after experiments, testing and evaluation, Cervino added. It’s a matter of finding an optimal approach that compliments an organization’s offline activities.

For UNICEF, the strength of its offline educational programs became a staple of TOT online. These educational tools were made available, thereby giving people who were loyal to the program more supplements for their own participation. The activity also stoked a fire that heated up donations.

“We’ve noticed that some of the schools that participated in the past have gone from like a $10,000 level to a $15,000 level,” Power said. “So it’s not just benefiting us by opening up things to a realm of new participants, it is providing resources and a really great wealth for the folks that are already committed.”

Making it more convenient for trick-or-treaters to send in their collections makes a commitment much easier. Parents and teachers no longer have to finger through mounds of nickels, dimes and quarters, deposit the money and then write a check to send to UNICEF. The organization’s partnership with Coinstar has been heavily marketed and saves the volunteer a lot of time and energy.

Approximately one-fifth of the donations are sent through Coinstar, Power said of the more than 8,500 coin redemption machines located in supermarkets nationwide.

“All you have to do to donate to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF automatically is pour your change into a Coinstar machine,” she explained. “Aside from the ease of use, we have onscreen presence through the month of October so we raise additional amounts of money just by people being in the store with change in their pockets who pass by and throw a few coins in.”

The Coinstar machine follows up the transaction by printing out a receipt. On that receipt is a tear-off portion that allows people to send additional information to the nonprofit including a description of their total participation and donation to the program. The user of the machine benefits just as they would from a mail-in donation. The entire donation is tax-deductible. And, Coinstar has waived its usual processing fee of approximately 9 cents for every dollar of change cashed in.