Digital Marketing Lessons from Award-Winning Smart Ashes

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We were humbled to learn earlier this year that our Be A Smart Ash campaign for the Denver City Forester received the annual Kudos Marketing Award from the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA). And we were perhaps even more excited to be invited on NRPA’s monthly webinar to detail some learnings about the campaign.

So what exactly is Be A Smart Ash? We’ll let the campaign tagline do the talking:

1 in 6 trees in Denver are ash trees. And if we do nothing, it’s just a matter of time before they’ll ALL be devoured by the emerald ash borer, the most destructive forest pest in U.S. history. But who wants to be a Debbie Downer when you can Be A Smart Ash? Spend some time on our site and learn how you can help protect your ash and our urban canopy by identifying, treating and replacing Denver’s ash trees.

The Denver City Forester, a division of Denver Parks and Recreation, enlisted our help with a five-year integrated marketing campaign that has included naming, branding, messaging, content creation, internal and external communications, media relations, website development, SEO, digital advertising, video production and social media management.

The goal? Raising awareness about a tiny pest called the emerald ash borer (EAB), which has decimated ash tree populations in more than 25 states and parts of Canada.

While it is still yet to be discovered in Denver, EAB had been discovered in nearby Boulder prior to the launch of the campaign, leading arborists to conclude it’s simply a matter of time before EAB reaches Denver and poses and immediate threat to 1.45 million ash trees in the metro area.

Having met with other cities blitzed by the pest, Denver concluded that a preemptive plan was imperative. So we went to work. After winning the Kudos Award in what was effectively Year 2 of the campaign, these are some key takeaways from a digital marketing perspective:

Being a Smart Ash Drives Engagement

Many balked at the idea of a city-run campaign that had such an irreverent concept at its heart. But Denver’s leaders have embraced it, our partners have elevated it through efforts like this EAB music video with Johnny 5 of the Flobots and it has all paid off in terms of engagement. Despite having a still-modest following on the campaign’s central social media account, the @BeASmartAsh Twitter page, we see an average engagement level of 2.6 percent on original tweets, which is far above industry standard. And when it comes to the #EAB hashtag, central to emerald ash borer awareness campaigns nationwide, we are the top influencer from an engagement rate perspective.

Catchiness Still Drives Awareness

While our SEO efforts have helped get to the first page of search results for “emerald ash borer”, the vast majority of the site’s traffic is direct. That simple, catchy name has increased the effectiveness of our broader digital advertising campaigns, and ultimately helped us statistically show that we’ve been able to effectively reach three-fourths of our target audience in the City and County of Denver.

Use the Right Digital Bells and Whistles

It’s always tempting to activate all of the conceivable digital tools at our disposal. But in an integrated campaign so heavily reliant on non-digital components, we had to be smart about where we invested our tech money. We’ve settled on one expensive tool and one free tool.

The expensive tool is MyTreeKeeper, which was born out of a joint effort by the Denver City Forester and Davey Tree Company. It’s essentially an interactive map of every public tree in Denver. Not only does this map help residents identify whether they have an ash tree, a key goal of this campaign, it gives them an idea of just how many trees we have in Denver and the actual dollar amount these trees contribute to property values around them. Our audience spends an average of almost three minutes on this page, showing this tool was worth the investment.

The free social tool we’ve utilized is Nextdoor, the social media platform for neighborhoods. Working with the folks at Nextdoor, we have been granted god properties to post in every Denver neighborhood (other users and brands are only permitted to post in their own neighborhood). That has allowed us to get our messaging out to specifically targeted areas of Denver that have high ash tree populations. And again, the proof is in the metrics: Nextdoor has been our top third-party referral source of traffic to on a day-in, day-out basis, driving targeted residents hungry for knowledge about EAB to conversion-based landing pages for more information about how to identify ash trees and protect them from EAB.

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