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persuasion notebook

Ground crew wave at WestJet Encore’s first flight, this one going from Calgary to Nanaimo. Encore is flying new Bombardier Q400 regional airplanes to service smaller destinations.Larry MacDougal/The Globe and Mail

The fellow who asked WestJet Airlines Ltd. for socks and underwear must be kicking himself.

On Monday, the airline released an elaborate Christmas marketing video online that showed how it pulled off a holiday surprise for some of its customers.

WestJet set up a video terminal with a live Santa-cam at airports in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont., to ask fliers what they wanted for Christmas. Employees then kicked into gear to surprise those travellers with the presents they asked for when their flight landed in Calgary a few hours later. Items such as a camera, a big-screen TV – and yes, some very practical socks and underwear – arrived in the baggage area in festively wrapped boxes.

The holiday surprise was a neat marketing trick for WestJet as well: It racked up a million views on YouTube in just one day.

The video cost much less to produce than a typical TV spot, according to WestJet – though the company wouldn't comment on the precise cost, referring only to "Santa" and "miracles." Eighteen cameras were hidden at Calgary's airport, in addition to the video screens for live Santa interaction. WestJet paid for ads on Facebook and Twitter, pointing viewers to the video, and made a public relations push. Still, the ability to reach a million people in a single day without paying the premium that television airtime demands would be attractive for any marketer.

The payoff in this type of marketing comes from people sharing it with their friends.

"In a social media environment, the sharing of it almost becomes the point itself: 'Look what this company did, I find it engaging, I want to tell you about it,'" said Richard Bartrem, WestJet's vice-president of communications and community relations. "It goes exponentially from there. It's very alluring to marketers to say how can I engage in that?"

In a new instalment this month of its quarterly study of online Canadians, Toronto-based Solutions Research Group found that 30 per cent of us have shared a video or TV ad within the last month, such as posting it on social media websites, or sending it to someone by e-mail. That activity is much higher with a younger demographic: among Canadians aged 12 to 34, the study found that 44 per cent shared a video, compared with less than a fifth of those over the age of 50.

"The younger demos just look at a piece of video and if it's cool social currency, they'll share it, irrespective whether it's promoting a company or service or product, or not," Solutions Research Group president Kaan Yigit said.

One of the easiest ways to make that connection, marketers are discovering, is through emotional storytelling. Viewers respond to human, emotion-driven stories, Mr. Bartrem said, and it helps to drive them to share those stories with others.

The artificial snow falling in baggage claim in Calgary and the swelling music may be transparent emotional manipulation, but in this case at least, tugging on the holiday heartstrings seems to have paid off.

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