Just as early television shows were essentially radio plays shot on film, the earliest attempts by online marketers mimicked the worlds of television and print. While banner ads and pre-roll commercials are still with us, of course, a new generation of marketing professionals and companies are exploring techniques more native to the web: multi-platform marketing campaigns that encourage interactivity.
Marketers who take advantage of the Internet’s unique capabilities have the potential to build increasingly engaged customer communities. Here’s a look at three major trends.
1. User-Generated Content Contests
Doritos hosted its first Crash the Superbowl campaign in 2007. Like a lot of big companies, Doritos bought a commercial slot for the Superbowl, but instead of hiring a production company to make a 30-second spot, Doritos turned to its consumers. “Grab your camera and create your Doritos commercial,” the company advertised. Anyone could create and submit a spot. These spots were put to a vote online, and the finalists received $10,000 and the winning spot ran in the very expensive Superbowl slot.
More than 1,000 people submitted videos, and Doritos generated a lot of attention for the campaign, ranking high in a number of surveys that tracked buzz and impact of the Super Bowl commercials.
These kinds of campaigns are very popular on the Internet at the moment and they range in scale. SolidWorks, makers of computer-aided design (CAD) software, worked with the design firm Small Army to build a campaign that involved its very active community. Christine Washburn, VP of marketing at SolidWorks, says, “We wanted to do something that would involve them and be very visible for new potential members of the community.”
Small Army came up with Let’s Go Design, an interactive web series. Users submit design ideas in response to challenges proposed by the show. Ideas are voted on and ultimately incorporated.
What works: Activity and participation around the brand.
If users get involved, they can win. And the voting structure generates even more activity. Washburn reports that SolidWorks’ “web traffic is up by a factor of four in comparison to previous campaigns.”
When this doesn’t work: Your brand doesn’t carry either the same kind of mass appeal as Doritos or the committed fandom of SolidWorks.
Branding consultant Lisa Merriam wrote a case study of a failed contest campaign by a company called Levia. It tried a campaign similar to Doritos, asking consumers to submit a video about the healing power of light.
Doritos is a mega-brand [with] millions and millions of passionate consumers. And Levia®? You probably never heard of it. Levia® is a device that uses light to treat psoriasis. The set of people who suffer from psoriasis and who have heard of Levia® and who have the technical know-how to produce video and who care enough to come up with winning concepts about light’s power to heal is an infinitesimally small set of people — certainly not a crowd.
2. Making a Consumer Community
Marketers have jumped on the relatively recent explosion of online communities. If customers have the ability to talk to one another, why not create an incentive and a space for them to talk about your brand?
One way to accomplish this is to offer customers something they might actually do in real life. Marketing agency Movement Strategy, for instance, recently created an online forum for two of its NBA clients, the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks. The site — NuggetsVsKnicks.com — operated during an actual game between the Nuggets and the Knicks, giving the fans a place to cheer on their team (and trash talk the other). By integrating with Facebook— users cheered by “Liking” their team — Movement Strategy was able to give a real-world analog to the digital interaction.
What works: Campaigns that encourage community among their customer base can really help to build loyalty.
When this doesn’t work: When the campaigns are lazy.
It’s not fair to say that most company Facebook Pages don’t work, but often the conversations there offer a relatively low level of engagement. Contests, questions and announcements all encourage participation from the customer, but not necessarily participation with each other.
A lot of brands use Twitter contests in a similar way. A few years ago Squarespace(), for instance, gave away an iPhone() a day to anyone who mentioned Squarespace in a tweet. While this kind of activity can generate a lot of buzz, the actual customer engagement in the brand is low — the equivalent of dropping your business card in a fishbowl.
Even worse is when Facebook and other social network integration is used as a gimmick. Last March, Absolut sponsored a short film by Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich. The film, titled I’m Here, was designed to be shown on the web. Before watching, the viewer is first walked through an invitation process using Facebook Connect. The friends you invite are cleverly integrated into an introductory cut scene, during which, you “enter” the theater to watch the film. Their photos appear on the VIP passes of other people in the theater. The whole thing works to give you a sense that you are watching this film with people who you know.
Except in this case, the experience stops there. As soon as the film starts, the connection to your community ends. The introduction has nothing to do with the film itself and instead feels tacked on and gimmicky. Absolut hinted at what could be done but didn’t actually do it.
3. Choose Your Own Adventure
Perhaps the most exciting development in multi-platform interactive campaigns is the ability of the customer base to participate in and affect the outcome of a story.
At Blogworld 2010, Ford announced an online marketing campaign to promote its new Focus. The campaign, called Focus Rally, pits six teams against each other in a reality-style adventure game where the viewers make the important calls for the participants.
“It’s a little bit like a choose your own adventure here, but the people at home were choosing the adventure for these players. It’s kind of cool how interactive the show is going to be,” says Focus Rally producer Neal Konstantini.
Specifically, the Focus Rally competitors must rely on the network capabilities of the car and their social networks to solve challenges. “[I]f you’re in Albuquerque and you’re stuck and you run out of gas,” Konstantini explains, “you’re going to have to get on Facebook and tell your network, ‘I’m stuck. I need gas. Help me.’”
What works: When the web is integrated into both a compelling storyline and effective brand messaging.
When this doesn’t work: When you expect interaction to be what solely carries the campaign.
“It’s not enough to be interactive,” says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, associate professor of marketing at Golden Gate University. “It has to be truly compelling, engaging and persuasive to the target market. If you build it, they may or may not come.”
Choose your own adventure campaigns build off the Internet’s potential as a story-telling device. These kinds of campaigns “require the audience’s presence and participation in order to be complete,” says Mike Monello, co-founder and executive director of Campfire, an advertising agency in New York. Monello was one of the creators of The Blair Witch Project and used viral Internet distribution before there was a name for such a thing.
In a recent campaign that Campfire created for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming, the team produced a series of videos about famous shark attacks throughout history. Like Absolut’s promotion of I’m Here, Campfire used Facebook Connect to personalize users’ experience of the site and videos. But whereas Absolut’s choice felt tacked on at the end, Campfire accessed users’ Facebook information to build a personalized shark attack for the visitor. It integrated personalization into the branding and the storytelling.
“Telling stories is one of mankind’s most enduring traditions,” Campfire explains on its website. “Our increased connectedness has only made spreading them faster, more pervasive, and more effective.”