Paul Holmes 22 May 2001 // 11:00PM GMT
Hotwire is an online travel booking service where customers can obtain bargains on last-minute airfares, hotel reservations, and car rentals. Although it had a better business model than its competitors, Hotwire was launched during a time when conventional wisdom said that the market for online travel service was already crowded. Also, competing sites were receiving negative media attention because of well-publicized customer complaints. To make the launch even more challenging, word was leaked a few months before the site was ready. This generated pressure on both Hotwire and Blanc & Otus, its PR agency, to unveil the service sooner than planned. The situation also angered some journalists who believed that they had not been chosen to receive a desirable “scoop.” However, the agency maintained control, harnessing the public’s growing excitement and using it to energize a successful and highly visible Hotwire debut. Just four months after launch, the site has one million registered subscribers.
Blanc & Otis was given a rare opportunity with the Hotwire launch. The client had decided to enter the market propelled almost exclusively by a public relations campaign. This was a chance to prove that PR could succeed without significant advertising or marketing support.
But several challenges threatened to undermine that opportunity. First, the client was entering a marketplace that suddenly had grown skeptical of e-commerce. Its niche – online travel services – also was overcrowded. To make matters worse, the most visible market player was reeling under intense media scrutiny for customer complaints, poor service, and a plunging stock price. Many reporters were claiming that increasing competition was behind this market leader’s woes. Who needed another travel site?
It got worse. As the agency was beginning to implement its launch strategy, an airline partner’s executive decided to leak the story to the Wall Street Journal four months early. Immediately, the publication used the front of its business section to announce that Hotwire, backed by major airlines, was about to tackle the market leader. The following day, numerous “copycat” stories appeared, and Hotwire was no longer a secret.
Now the agency and the client had to fight the pressure to launch early – while easing the bruised egos of journalists and analysts who felt cheated out of a major announcement.
RESEARCH & PLANNING
The goals for a Hotwire launch were two-fold – to establish the company as a dominant player in online travel, and to separate itself from the firestorm surrounding the market leader. The story leak prevented B&O from maintaining any pre-launch secrecy, and it forced the agency to modify its original plan.
The plan was straightforward – relying on strong relationships with key analysts and media people, and attracting users to Hotwire’s beta site while still keeping the client’s profile below the media radar screen. Once the news broke, however, B&O used media interest to leverage executive interviews. (“Now that you heard the news, you can meet with the Hotwire CEO to get the real story.”) This worked very well and actually built stronger pre-launch relationships that resulted in better stories afterward.
The revised strategy (post-leak) was to establish Hotwire as “substance behind the hype.” This would be accomplished by briefing analysts and other influencers, introducing them to the Hotwire CEO, demonstrating the site’s beta version, highlighting the leading airline partners, and showcasing the ways that Hotwire had redefined the way online customers would shop for travel services. Once that was accomplished, the client would launch a public beta site, inviting comments from key journalists and analysts. At the same time, B&O would establish and strengthen the client’s relationship with these influencers.
Just before launch, the agency would alert high-profile media people from all types of news outlets. Hotwire executives would be “media trained” and their availability secured for interviews. Without naming any competitors, Hotwire also would emphasize the site’s positive aspects, each one contrasting a competitor’s negative.
Aside from the news leak, Hotwire’s campaign went quite well. B&O moved quickly to use public interest in the new site while holding off any early launch. Technology glitches delayed the launch by several weeks, prompting the media to inquire about the problem. B&O turned it around by emphasizing that the site would not launch until Hotwire could guarantee that it would perform to customers’ expectations. That played well against customer complaints about the current market leader.
Positioning also focused on Hotwire’s unique pricing concept, leading airline partners, and customer service, all of which effectively contrasted with competitors. (Competitor names were not mentioned, as the agency wanted to promote Hotwire on its own merits.)
SUMMARY OF THE RESULTS
Hotwire launched in October, buoyed by overwhelming media response. Within a week, the site was featured in more than 40 newspapers (including the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today) and on more than 300 TV news programs (including ABC World News This Morning, CBS Morning News, and CNN), reaching more than 60 million people. The site far exceeded internal projections for visitor traffic and tickets sold. In fact, Hotwire sold more tickets in its first four days than the market leader did in its first six weeks. Four months later, Hotwire had signed one million subscribers, and it attracted more than 2000 top-tier travel partners. Without any advertising or marketing support, the numbers could be attributed solely to the public relations campaign.