When social media company Demand Media Inc. launched a health, fitness, and lifestyle section on its Web site in June 2008 it was christened Livestrong.com in recognition of a partnership with cancer survivor and cyclist Lance Armstrong and his namesake Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF), Livestrong (Livestrong.org).
Social media sites develop interactive online virtual communities of individuals with similar interests.
The for-profit dot-com site states upfront that it derives its revenue from advertising and membership subscriptions, while LAF remains a nonprofit dedicated to supporting cancer survivorship and calling on the nation's leaders to wage a new war against cancer through Livestrong.org.
“Livestrong.com is a practical resource to find a wealth of health-related information from a wide range of sources, and is a proactive way to have a daily conversation about being healthy and living an active lifestyle,” according to the Web site, which calls Lance Armstrong a strategic adviser and ongoing content contributor who is “engaged with the community and shares his philosophy throughout the site.”
The site recently announced that during the last year more than 1.5 million people had made healthy changes using the site's tools, unique content, and active, supportive community.
Livestrong.com's stated mission is to dare to change the life of its community members, offering a “My Dares” feature as a sort of life to-do list to help users put their plan together and act on it, resulting in achieving everyday victories.
For example, as of early July, some 5,000 people had joined Dare to Quit Smoking, which challenges members to quit smoking to improve their overall health and increase their lifespan.
But can the LIVESTRONG branding cause confusion between missions by exploiting a well-known cancer icon to draw visitors to a commercially driven Web address, as some concerned advocates requesting anonymity have asked?
Or, conversely, is it that a proactive health-related resource can draw attention to cancer awareness among those who've not yet been touched by the disease?
Soon after the site celebrated its first anniversary in June I spoke with LAF President and CEO Doug Ulman and Demand Media's Executive Vice President for Brands, Larry Fitzgibbon, and EVP for Product Marketing and Community, Joe Perez.
Mr. Ulman was en route between LAF's Austin, Texas, headquarters and Houston, where he was going to the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center for his semi-annual check-up as a long-time survivor of chondrosarcoma and malignant melanoma. (Later that day he let his followers on Twitter know: “All good on the check-up!”)
The genesis of Livestrong.com, he explained, grew out of a dinner conversation two years before between Demand Media cofounder and CEO Richard Rosenblatt and Lance Armstrong when both were attending a board meeting for New Sun Nutrition, manufacturer of the FRS line of energy products.
“Richard asked Lance about some of the goals of the [Lance Armstrong] Foundation,” Ulman recalled, “and Lance said that one of our main goals was to try to empower the grassroots movement to help make cancer a national priority.
“Richard asked how he was driving people online and getting more people involved, and Lance sort of stumbled through the answer, prompting Richard to say, ‘Look, I can help you. I can help drive significant numbers of people to your cause.’”
Ulman said Armstrong was thinking that since Rosenblatt had started MySpace and eventually sold it to Rupert Murdoch and was brilliant in the social media world, that he could help. He said Armstrong was insterested in getting Rosenblatt to think about cancer and grassroots movements and engaging people.
From that initial conversation LAF and Demand Media, which was founded in 2006, worked on forming a partnership that developed over the next year.
“From LAF's perspective we wanted to use this [health and fitness] site with our brand to reach a broader audience and to inspire and empower people, and ultimately drive them to Livestrong.org and the Foundation and its information and programs,” Mr. Ulman said.
5 Key Pillars
The Livestrong brand has five key pillars, identified through marketing research to learn what the brand meant to others, and how to better position it in the future, Mr. Ulman said:
* Hope and inspiration.
* Health and wellness.
* Passion and excellence.
Created in 2003, the brand and program became ubiquitously conspicuous after Nike told LAF it wanted to make yellow wristbands imprinted with LIVESTRONG.
By 2006 LAF was inundated by requests for brand partnerships, with what seemed like every company calling about putting LIVESTRONG on its products.
“We didn't have a good filter to make decisions, and everything was just flying around us and we didn't know what to say yes or no to,” said Mr. Ulman.
The branding of some Hewlett-Packard laptop computers with the logo wasn't continued because “when you look at the five brand features, computers and technology doesn't tumble to the top,” he added.
He noted that one of the things that's unique about the Foundation and the Livestrong brand is its ability to engage people in the cancer fight who otherwise might not have been involved. He cited Nike as example of a global company that turned to thinking about how it could help in the cancer community and the bigger mission.
In 2006 LAF also developed a relationship with Kansas City, MO-based American Century Investment Services Inc., creating LIVESTRONG Portfolios.
Now in its fourth year of a 10-year commitment, American Century donates funds to the LAF based on the size of its assets. The fund's founders, who had long been involved in funding cancer research, had initially approached the Foundation about setting up the deal.
After the Demand Media opportunity came along, LAF again turned to marketing research to find out what its core constituency of survivors and event participants thought about licensing the brand to a for-profit health and fitness site, resulting in 92% of the 750 respondents thinking it was a great idea, and the Foundation deciding its content should be built by the people and for the people rather than being unilaterally derived from experts.
With the persona of Lance Armstrong as its guiding inspiration, the Livestrong brand began to transcend its cancer roots, although interestingly, the single most visited section of the health and fitness-oriented Livestrong.com is devoted to cancer, and much of the content is shared by both dot-com and dot-org entities.
Mr. Ulman also said that every month Livestrong.com has been either the number one or number two referral site to Livestrong.org, so the goal of building and driving traffic to the Foundation has been successful.
“This was an innovative partnership and rather than have any money flow to the Foundation from the dot-com site, LAF took equity in the parent company, Demand Media since we didn't want to be financially tied with the site on a daily basis,” he said.
He added that prevention will never be the number one foundation of LAF's mission, but that Livestrong.com has been able to play an important role in achieving better health and fitness, and its quit-smoking site definitely involves a large cancer-prevention component.
The interaction between LAF and Demand Media is ongoing, with respective teams talking each week, and Demand Media also having an Austin office, which had been home to another company it had acquired prior to this partnership.
As Demand Media's EVP for Brands, Mr. Fitzgibbon manages the company's vertical properties in entertainment, games, knowledge, and lifestyle, which also include eHow.com, GolfLink.com, Trails.com, Cracked.com, and Mania.com.
He said that once the deal was done he and his colleagues, including Mr. Rosenblatt, and EVP for Product Marketing and Community Joe Perez, had to build the Livestrong.com site in just 90 days.
Mr. Perez said that the team locked itself into its “war room,” with walls painted Livestrong yellow and covered with accompanying logos, and stayed there until they were finished.
Mr. Perez, who had previously worked for Mr. Rosenblatt at MySpace.com, had personal as well as professional interests in the project.
A developer of the Daily Plate calorie tracker, he said he had been reluctant to sell that to Demand Media until the Livestrong.com project was conceived, but that it is now obvious that it is an excellent fit and is one of the site's fundamental tools (also available in versions as BlackBerry and iPhone applications for $2.99 each).
But Mr. Perez's interest in the inspirational site was also motivated by his own connection with cancer—both his father and mother-in-law are cancer survivors, and his father-in-law died of the disease.
He said he and his pharmacist wife had been frustrated by the fragmented cancer resources on the Internet, and that Livestrong.com was a way to aggregate such information, especially since one of the tenets of the site is that members help themselves as well as others.
Mr. Fitzgibbon said he didn't think that having both cancer-oriented and health- and fitness-focused sites with similar names was in any way a double-edged sword.
“Lance Armstrong has been an amazing source of inspiration, who transcends cancer, a great symbol for achievement, who also represents health and fitness,” he said.
With only three months to bring Livestrong.com to life, Demand Media leveraged a lot of its media platforms to execute the project in so short a time, said Mr. Fitzgibbon, who defended the site's claim as the definitive daily health, fitness, and lifestyle destination.
He also said that while most of Livestrong.com is free, there are some users who subscribe to additional services for a fee, and that advertising from appropriate sponsors provides most of the enterprise's revenue.
“The financial opportunity was one reason for Demand Media's interest, but it had more to do with research studies about how health and fitness was perceived as one thing with the Livestrong brand,” he said.
‘Just Act One’
Mr. Perez said, “The cancer site we created with LAF is just Act One, only the first inning, providing the framework and tools to share in the creation of other disease sites like the one we're working on for diabetes. We want killer apps for everything, and this is just the beginning, since we're growing exponentially. Twitter reached its tipping point and social media sites are poised to reach theirs soon.”