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How Truth Initiative Uses Data To Save Lives


Nicole-Dorrler-Truth-InitiativeYouth smoking stands at a record low of 7%. The rate was more than triple that number when Truth Initiative, the nonprofit aimed at stopping teens from taking up smoking, was founded in 2000 with money from the US’s settlement with tobacco companies.

The nonprofit was among the first to use data in the way that a for-profit company would, said marketing VP Nicole Dorrler. She’s been at Truth Initiative for 10 years and previously worked at an agency on brands like VW and Hyatt.

“Unlike a brand whose ROI is conversion on sales, our sale is saving a life,” Dorrler said.

The company takes a sample of 100 people a week to measure awareness of the campaign and of Truth Initiative. It optimizes its marketing mix if awareness falls even a couple points below 75%. That awareness level is the critical mass needed to stop teens from smoking. “If we hit a threshold of 70% to 75% of awareness, the ability to change behavior is exponentially increased,” Dorrler said.

The nonprofit also conducts research to measure how much its marketing impacts smoking rates. A study conducted from 2000 to 2004 and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that the marketing campaign alone stopped 450,000 people from smoking, saving an estimated 150,000 lives.

Another study in that journal showed that the campaign saved another $1.9 billion in future health care costs. An additional longitudinal study is in the works, and initial findings will be released next year.

Reaching12-to-21-year-olds who are at risk of starting smoking means that Dorrler must move quickly to respond to where teens are spending their time. That means doing upfront buys with YouTube and Snapchat. It also means creating a music video, “Left Swipe Dat,” inspired by Tinder, or tapping into Americans’ love of cat videos via its #CATmageddon campaign, which shared that pets whose owners smoke are twice as likely to die from cancer.

Those efforts led Truth Initiative to tie with CVS Health and Walmart for the most effective brand in this year’s Effie Index. Dorrler was just named Nonprofit Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association.

Dorrler talked with AdExchanger about the Truth Initiative’s data-driven approach to marketing and how it’s reaching teen audiences.

AdExchanger: Why is Truth Initiative so data-driven?

NICOLE DORRLER: There was a lot of scrutiny when Truth Initiative was founded. We had to invest in proving it worked [and that] we use the funds provided from the settlement in the most effective way possible. Data is a powerful tool for us in fighting an industry that spends $9.6 billion per year marketing its products.


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What have you done with programmatic?

We knew our digital buy was delivering inequitably across the US. We went into programmatic and saw what areas in the US were receiving less of a ‘dose’ or amount of our message. We decided to equalize those DMAs with programmatic. Traditional digital publishers tend to deliver where their audience is en masse, like the coasts. We found they were less likely to deliver against their guarantee in the Midwest and the South. And those regions are an important audience for us, because those areas have higher prevalence rates of youth who smoke. It would be irresponsible for us to leave them behind. Programmatic helps us equalize and go after the areas that weren’t being covered.

Who do you work with programmatically?

Gameloft, Teads, Tremor, Google, Opera Mediaworks. 

Truth Initiative’s current campaign focuses on stopping college students from taking up social smoking. Some of them are using hookahs or cigarillos. What insights led you to this target?

The age of initiation changed. Smoking was initiated around 8th or 9th grade, but then the industry changed. We saw that 18- and 19-year-olds were initiating, which was never done before. And hookahs and cigarillos are not highly regulated, so we needed to debunk the illusion that they were safe. One 60-minute hookah session is equivalent to 100 cigarettes. 

Where are you finding these 12-to-21-year-olds? Has that changed recently?

We utilize things like MTV and the Grammys, because music is a passion point for youth. For the Grammys, we did an execution called “Left Swipe Dat.” We took a simple formula. Smoking = left swipe = less desirability to the opposite sex. It was a two-and-a-half minute video with Becky G and an arsenal of influencers. The only person utilizing influencers at scale at that time was Meghan Trainor. We put it on Spotify as a song, Vevo as a music video and MTV and VH1. We were number 1 trending worldwide over the Grammys and were a YouTube trending topic over Fallon. We try to connect in cultural ways. Our strategy is about joining the movement. Our audience keeps aging in and out, so we have to know where they were gravitating and congregating.

 How do you extend those TV programs through digital?

We have a robust Google and YouTube buy, which 2 years ago was the first digital upfront we’ve ever done. We do promoted posts through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We were first to market with Snapchat when it first started and bought it directly through them before they had a sales department. When we did programmatic, we were first to market with Opera Mediaworks through Google. We have to stay ahead to get at these elusive audiences.

How did Snapchat perform for you?

You were able actually to get some sense of measurability, but what you don’t ever get is a completion rate. But you had a very engaged audience. We knew how many initiated the video, but couldn’t follow them from Snapchat into any of our owned properties. At the time of the launch, they did have a shareability feature that we were able to measure. This is the first year we are doing a Snapchat upfront as well. It will be a year-long initiative.

What’s the next Snapchat?

The trap is always to jump on whatever is next. With Snapchat, it was the right fit and voice for us for things we were already doing in Vine over time. Vine has evolved and devolved from what it was – it is now connected to Twitter feeds and less of an actual destination. 

Where are you spending less time and money?

The millennials are moving from Facebook, but the centennials are using it. When they were born, their parents had a Facebook account. They are just using it differently than their Snapchat or Instagram. I have moved away from buying Vine.

Has your media mix changed?

It’s no longer a TV-centric plan. I have shifted my thinking in terms of what is a tent pole. For me, that’s reaching a high concentration of an audience that is likely to share. That can be digital. That can be social.

You have this gold standard of research because of your long-term studies and weekly samples. What does that tell you about how well proxy metrics like CTR work?

We do awareness modeling based on all the media we are doing, and we make sure our bottom is an awareness of at least 75% throughout the entire media buy. We have a trigger mechanism at 73% where I go in and adjust. We do buy things on a cost per click, cost per view, cost per engagement, but that [awareness modeling] puts the emphasis on making change in the world, versus whether or not they landed on a page.

What can other brands, profit and nonprofit, learn from what you’ve done?

Nonprofits should look to for-profits for the metrics they are setting for themselves and the way they are doing their measuring and [gathering] data. For-profits should think of their intellectual capital and what they can do to help nonprofits meet their goals. I would like to see more cross-pollination of intelligence between brands and nonprofits.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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