Advertising Plugged In

Not so long ago, only the geekiest among us spent more than a couple hours per week on the web. We checked our email, visited a couple of websites, and then disconnected our 56k modem to clear the line for incom-ing calls. Maybe we read a message board or two, and maybe (before they were populated chiefly by 12 year olds, pedophiles and FBI informants) we visited a chat room.

But that was before affordable broadband connections, wireless routers in every coffee shop, increasingly mobile and powerful laptop computers, and internet-enabled smart phones enabled the average American to spend 68 hours per month on a computer – and they’re not just eyeing spreadsheets. They’re commenting on stories they read, forwarding viral video clips, and becoming fans of things like “Demetri Martin” or “Bacon” on social networks. There’s a reason people call the Blackberry the “crackberry,” and it’s the same reason President Barack Obama wouldn’t let the Secret Service take his away when he moved into the White House: We’re addicted to being online.

With their unmatched ability to shape consumer habits through advertising, the big beverage brands have long understood the basics of online marketing – they’ve been creating websites for more than a decade now – but the ever-increasing number of opportunities for online consumer engagement has drastically changed the game in recent years. It has opened the field up to much smaller players, but the increased level of internet accessibility also means that it is more important than ever for even the smallest beverage brands to stay in touch with consumers, to encourage them to personally involve themselves with their favorite brands through things like “insider-only” sales and marketing information. Online marketing has become less about getting consumers to come to your web site. It’s become more about making sure you have secured a place in their online lives, so they’ll make sure to include you on the increasingly-permeable “real world” side of the monitor.

BUILDING BLOCKS

While web sites might seem like a quaint throwback in a Facebook world, a company or product web site is often the consumer’s – or the retailer or distributor’s –primary point of contact with a brand. And while the technology has changed, brands still need a focal point. Whether it’s a home page or a blog, firms need a place where consumers can find basic information about a product, according to marketing expert Lee Odden, the CEO of TopRank Online Marketing and author of Toprankblog.com.

The twist is that even a basic home page should extend beyond bare facts and – at minimum – allow consumers to increase their engagement with the brand, according to Dan LaCivita, executive director of the digital promotions shop Firstborn.

“We like to think people spending time with a brand online is going to increase [intent to purchase],” Lacivita said.

LaCivita’s firm has crafted homepages for alcoholic beverage firms including Corona, Smirnoff and Malibu that draw in consumers for nine to 15 minutes per visit, according to his metrics. While some of those sites include components that spider out to social networking hubs like Facebook and Myspace (more on those later), LaCivita said a brand’s digital strategy doesn’t have to invest in all those social and mobile applications collectively known as Web 2.0. Before a beverage company goes head-over-bottlecap into the new hyper-connected online world, Lacivita said it should know who their customers are and how they’re likely to receive an online campaign.

“Listen more and do less,” LaCivita said. For example, he added, it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to create an iPhone application when Wild Turkey hired Firstborn to revamp the iconic bourbon’s online presence. Instead he steered clear of web 2.0, focused on the brand’s history, crafting a homepage that included nothing more tech heavy than a couple of documentary-style video clips.

Most brands, however, serve a more tech-savvy customer base than Wild Turkey drinkers. The coveted 18-35 demographic has shifted so much of its entertainment time to the internet that Nielsen reported the age of the average TV viewer has climbed to 50 years old. And those younger consumers aren’t going to the web to see black text on a white background. To get them to spend time with the brand, marketers will want to use something a bit flashier than a company history. So, when LaCivita built sites for young-skewing liquors Smirnoff and Malibu, he included playful interfaces and interactive elements.

But what LaCivita does on a small scale, big-money brands Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have pursued to a whole different level.

Coke, the world’s number-one soda marketer, took a whimsical approach with its “Happiness Factory” site built around the 2007 Super Bowl commercial of the same name. On the site, visitors explore a fantastical factory and take part in virtual Coca-Cola production by playing games modeled after jobs shown in the commercials. PepsiCo took a similar approach with its DewMocracy Voltage site, built around the winning flavor from its DewMocracy campaign. The site is filled with electricity-themed games, and either site can suck in a visitor for 30 minutes before they realize their incessant giggling has enraged their coworkers and their boss is standing directly behind them, pink-slip in hand. Anheuser-Busch tried to take – unsuccessfully — a divergent time-wasting approach when it launched Bud.tv in 2007. The site contained hours of original video content ranging from repurposed commercials to interviews with NFL cheerleaders to bar jokes. A-B recently scuttled the $15 million project after struggling with age verification problems and the cost of creating original content, but portions of the endeavor live on. Budweiser.com and Budlight.com allow consumer to watch the brands’ TV commercials any time they like, and also feature a smattering of other media, including music, slideshows and interviews with drivers from the Budweiser NASCAR team. Additionally, the site has served as a launching pad for another element of online marketing, providing a storehouse for the many Budweiser commercials that are forwarded from friend to friend, the so-called viral stage of marketing.

FEEDING THE CULT

While these kinds of sites help consumers spend time with the brand, marketers can also use the modern online environment to let consumers participate and feel invested. Energy drink brand BAWLS Guarana has used its page for years to create a “cult-like following,” according to marketing director Sabrina Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said BAWLS, with its core demographic of computer gamers – during all-night networked gaming festivals, BAWLS has been nicknamed “geek beer” and then rolled out a product of the same name — has long been ahead of the technological curve. It was one of the first drink brands to create a web page, Gonzalez said, and it has since engaged in variety of online methods to create a community around the brand – chiefly by letting fans contribute. Bawls.com features a “Fun Stuff” section with videos and images created, not by Bawls, but by its consumers. Whenever a fan submits material that makes it onto BAWLS’ site, the company sends swag to the submitter.

“If they went through all of that work anyway just to support our brand it’s the least that we can do,” Gonzalez said.

The tactic has helped keep fans like Austin “Snowy” Milner engaged. Milner created his first piece of BAWLS artwork in 2006 and later sent an entire portfolio of BAWLS-themed artwork – for free – to the company. BAWLS posted his work on its site, and Milner, now a freelance designer, still makes time to create the occasional BAWLS graphic.

The brand also seizes other opportunities to engage its consumers. Gonzalez said BAWLS sponsors 1,000 gaming parties per year through bawlstyle.com, where it also sponsors BMX and Paintball events. The company also uses in-person appearances to reinforce its online presence. Gonzalez said the brand once set up at the Penny Arcade festival and handed out free bottles of BAWLS – with a catch. Freebie seekers had to submit their forehead as a billboard for BAWLS to stamp its MySpace address on.

Social marketing efforts require that kind of give and take, Odden said. Blasting out your message and walking away doesn’t work. You have to keep your customers involved, which also means realizing that you are giving up some measure of control over that message. Odden said marketers should expect consumers to put their own spin on the company’s online marketing efforts, and instead of trying to control the message, firms should nudge it. If an internet user does something less-than-desirable with a brand, the owner can reach out to quell that activity. Simply letting them know is often enough, Odden said, though more forceful (i.e. legal) actions may sometimes be appropriate.

But it’s important not to confuse original and edgy with inappropriate. When someone does something interesting with your brand, such as turning it into a science experiment with the aid of breath-freshening candy, Odden said you should encourage them.

A case study in what to do – and what not to do – can be found in the tale of Eepybird.com and the Coca-Cola Co., in which the now-famously overcoat-clad site founders conducted the above-mentioned symphony of soda fizz, dropping a pile of Mentos candy into a pallet of Diet Coke, creating a carbonated ballet in which the spray matched the choreography of the fountains at the Bellaggio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Released on June 3, 2006, the video flooded across the internet, bringing the two performers who started Eepybird, Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe, appearances on the David Letterman show and other high-profile venues. They were profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Mentos sent them free product to continue their “experiments,” put the video on their web site, and encouraged consumers to post their own Mentos geyser experiments.

Coke didn’t like it, and initially kept the pair at bay, to the point that Coke released an official statement claiming, among other things, that “The craziness with Mentos doesn’t fit with the brand personality of Diet Coke.”

Flashing forward a few months, as the pair continued to gain popularity, Coke committed its biggest marketing about-face since the New Coke fiasco, as it signed a development deal with Eepybird, had the performers conduct another experiment with Mentos and Diet Coke for the Coke site, and eventually even had them set off their Diet Coke explosions at Coca-Cola Co. headquarters.

The company seems to have learned to embrace social media phenomena since then. Recently, Coke executives were contacted by officials at the social networking site Facebook about a fast-growing Facebook Coca-Cola fan club page started by a single individual, a Los Angeles actor named Dusty Sorg, that had attracted 3.3 million supporters – a total that was second only to a Barack Obama page in number of fans. With traffic so high on the site, some of the typical detritus associated with the internet (or any collection of 3.3 million people) – nude photos, objectionable language – was starting to get through into the site’s chat boards and other cyber nooks and crannies. Facebook wanted the site shut down or turned over to Coke to manage.

But rather than risk appearing like a big, unhip corporation, Coke instead offered to help Sorg, inviting him down to visit headquarters last winter, and devoting a few employees to help keep the site free of objectionable content. The point of the company’s interaction with Sorg was to figure out how to keep a fan club in the hands of the fans, and keep the interactivity of Facebook alive – so, for example, Coke’s helpers will remove racy photos, but not statements like “I love Pepsi.”

While Coke occasionally posts material to the site, “It will not become an overly commercial repository of Coca-Cola assets,” a Coke official told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Odden said this kind of behavior – nudging a message instead of trying to control it – becomes especially important when marketers deal with online social networks like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter. The still-evolving genre centers on users who create personal profiles, connect with friends and like-minded individuals, and then share aspects of their lives. Some services, like Facebook, include a news feed for each user that aggregates profile changes comments made by the user’s friends. In ways, it’s the ultimate invasion of privacy – but it’s done freely, and leaves vast reservoirs of personal information, and rapid product feedback, for clever marketers to cull through when formulating a campaign. It also presents an opportunity for a social marketing campaign to spread organically, sometimes reaching far beyond the initial targeted population.

LEARNING THE LANGUAGE

The hitch with dealing with the many subcultures of the web – it is world-wide, after all — is that uninitiated marketers can run afoul of dozens of rules, many of them unwritten. Aside from each social network’s terms of service agreements, marketers need to obey the cultural norms developed within the community. The best way to deal with that, Odden said, is to listen. Marketers should track their target communities for days or weeks to see how they work and what customs the community obeys – or what they think is funny and exciting, something that Coke obviously learned over the course of the summer of Eepybird.

“The analogy is something like going into a new country where you don’t speak the language,” Odden said, “or maybe you do but it’s all unfamiliar.”

While listening is one way to do business within a new culture, Bill Sipper, president of High Voltage Beverages, went another classic route. He hired insiders.

Sipper, 42, grew up before schools assigned email addresses to students, and said he would feel presumptuous assuming that he understood social networking as well as the generation that grew up with cell phones and Pokemon. So, when he decided to launch an online campaign for his company’s Volt energy soda, he hired college interns.

“[I told them] here’s two computers. Here’s two video cameras. Here’s two regular cameras. Go make stuff happen,” Sipper said.

Sipper’s plan has only been in place for a couple of months, but he’s happy with it so far. To date, his team has created a fan page for Volt on both Facebook and Myspace, and collected about 1,000 followers on each. When the Volt interns post a note, event, photo or video, the social network alerts each of those 1,000 users. The pages also allow for fan interaction. Sipper’s interns have posted an array of fan-created content.

While Sipper said it’s too early to call the endeavor a success, he plans to integrate it into the brand’s long term plan.

“The goal is to have an intern in every major market we go into,” Sipper said. He added that he also wants to expand into more social networking platforms – like Twitter.

Twitter marks a new turn in social marketing. The service doesn’t center on a profile. Instead, it centers on short updates, containing 140 characters or less, called “tweets.” Whenever a user writes one of these bite-sized messages, it propagates out to all Twitter users interested in tracking them. That might sound difficult to use from a marketing perspective, but it can be deceptively powerful, according to Odden.

Odden, who has more than 8,400 Twitter “followers,” recently used the service to drive traffic to one of his blog entries. He “tweeted” the link, and asked his followers to echo it to their followers.

“The reach of that one tweet had 180,000 impressions within a couple of days,” Odden said. “How much would it cost to buy that many eyeballs?”

But, like most opportunities, Twitter comes with challenges, and Odden said the service “can be a big time suck” when used improperly. Before a marketer can start driving traffic through Twitter, the traffic needs a place to go (remember your homepage?) and a large enough following to create a tidal flow of web hits. Established brands can easily collect a following, Odden said, but startups have to give to get.

Odden suggests marketers use services like search.twitter.com to find people talking about their brand or related topics. When Sipper’s team starts tweeting it could follow anyone that mentions Volt. Each time a user receives a new follower, Twitter sends them an email announcing that development. They may, in turn, follow their new follower – something marketers can capitalize on by being helpful. For example, if Sipper’s interns see someone is asking about sources of energy to power through finals, they could suggest Volt, they could send a link to Volt retailers, or even send product coupons.

But gaining followers – whether on Twitter or any other social network – is only the first challenge. Then, marketers have to keep consumers involved. Without some reason to pay attention, social networking groups can erode, and Odden said blasting marketing copy can turn people off. But offering the occasional free download and maybe a little insider information can keep things fresh.

Many aspects of online marketing can be done for little or no financial cost. Updating a Facebook or Myspace page only costs time. The same goes for uploading a YouTube video, and hiring a firm to create a quality homepage costs less than creating a 30-second T.V. commercial.

“It can be a wonderful channel for small businesses with limited resources,” Odden said.

And businesses with somewhat more substantial resources can mount an even larger offensive – which is exactly what Sweet Leaf Tea did. Adi Wilk, Sweet Leaf’s marketing manager recently created a dedicated position for monitoring and managing that presence.

“We were not a significant player. We were not talked about as much as we would like to be talked about,” Wilk said.

Now, the company has a single person that watches all of the brand’s online accounts, checks for mentions of the brand, and shuttles complaints to the correct person. Additionally, Wilk has gotten the entire Sweet Leaf team – from founder Clayton Christopher to the shipping person – involved with responding to the occasional online query.

The outcome of initiatives like this, though, can be difficult to measure, especially as the experts have yet to agree on universal benchmarks for success. Odden suggests friends, followers and brand mentions can serve as rough metrics, but he said marketers shouldn’t expect to draw a straight line from their Facebook page to the cash register. It helps, he said, to think of online marketing as a relationship rather than a campaign. There’s no start or stop date, he said, and an online marketing effort should be a “living, breathing thing” that creates and maintains awareness of the brand.

Properly executed, Odden said these kinds of efforts can create a groundswell of support for a brand. And it can happen fast, as well, catapulting a small brand into the collective consciousness. So pay attention online: if they’re out there tweeting a drink’s praises, you might be able to use it to feather your nest.INFECTIOUS VIDEOS

Viral videos represent one of the most alluring aspects of online marketing. Chop together 30 seconds to three minutes of video, throw it on the web and watch it spread across the internet like mono through a dormitory. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Hundreds of marketers have the same idea you do, and all attempts to use internet videos for commercial purposes must contend with the online musings, songs, obnoxious children and pratfalls of the millions of people who post clips of themselves every day. However, that doesn’t mean that creating a video clip isn’t worth your time, and there are a couple ways to improve the success rate for viral campaigns.

The first step, according to beverage entrepreneur-turned-web-campaign-consultant Peter Van Stolk, is to create good content.

He pointed to BlendTec’s viral campaign for its super-powered blenders. In a series of 60-90 second videos, BlendTec spokesman Tom Dickson puts everything from a crowbar to an iPhone into a BlendTec blender and asks “will it blend?” Hint: it does. Always.

These acts of destruction have garnered the brand far more wide-ranging notoriety than any high-end blender brand has ever deserved. BlendTec has posted 83 of these videos, with many achieving more than 1 million views, and the iPhone video – which reduced the $600 piece of electronics to grey powder and one shard of twisted metal – racking up nearly 6.5 million.

Your firm probably doesn’t have a product that will destroy a crowbar – and if you do, you probably shouldn’t be in the beverage business – but every brand should be able to seize on a concept relevant to its consumers.

Van Stolk’s one guiding suggestion? Don’t focus it on scantily-clad women.

“Let’s just be honest here,” Van Stolk said. “I think [internet users] can find naked breasts pretty quick.”

Once you’ve finished your video (with all female subjects fully clothed, of course) you can give it a running start by using an online distribution service like Dan Ackerman Greeberg’s 750 Industries. In a day when YouTube boasts 10 hours worth of videos uploaded every minute Greenberg said betting on a video to break out on its own, no matter how amazing, is a bad investment.

“It’s really hard to create viral videos. That’s the bottom line,” Greenberg said. “If you can’t get people to watch it, you just wasted all your money on the production.”

Instead, Greenberg suggests coming up with a concept that’s sharable, then dividing your money evenly between production and distribution.

Greenberg’s company, for example, uses Facebook as a platform to bring attention to video clips and other online marketing campaigns.

While that doesn’t sound as glamorous as watching your 60-second masterpiece break out on its own, it’s certainly a safer bet. And definitely safer than putting an iPhone in your home blender.

THINK SMALL

When most marketers think of online initiatives, they think of Facebook or Myspace, but Peter Van Stolk suggests you think smaller.

And fire your advertising agency.

Van Stolk, most famous for creating the Jones Soda and now head of online marketing consultancy Tree Fort Group, said small firms can use their online marketing budget most efficiently by targeting niche online spaces that attract the firm’s target consumer. This, he said, is something that advertising agencies haven’t yet cottoned to.

“Traditionally, people always go to the top 1,000 websites [to place their ads,]” he said. “Needless to mention, there are 10 million websites out there. You have to really figure out who’s talking about your brand.”

Maybe the comment boards that mention your brand also link to snarky T-shirt sites. Maybe the bloggers that mention your product also post about Jeopardy! bloopers. Or maybe they link to bathtub races.

“There’s a website devoted to 4 million people devoted to bathtub races,” Van Stolk said. “These people are fanatical… if a brand can capture and resonate with those people, that’s such a great spend.”

Once you’ve identified a connecting site, Van Stolk said you should do more than place a banner advertisement. Introduce your brand in a way that doesn’t feel like advertising, he said. Sponsor a forum, perhaps. Create a conversation around the product.

“If you start it and other people pick up on it, then you’re golden,” he said.

That philosophy also applies to a slightly more insidious tactic called “seeding,” Van Stolk said. The tactic amounts to planting single mentions of the brand on blogs and message boards and hoping that others continue the conversation.

The emphasis here is on starting the conversation. Repeatedly boosting the brand in the same place, Van Stolk said, can sabotage your efforts. And, Van Stolk said, don’t pay a blogger to talk about your product. If readers discover the arrangement, it will damage both your brand and the keyboard jockey’s reputation.