To big-name marketers, the teeming mosh pits of social networking sites look like dangerous places for their precious brands. MySpace: Isn’t that full of dirty old men picking up teenage girls? Facebook: That’s where college students post pictures of bawdy frat parties. And YouTube: Pirated videos — and people making fun of our commercials.
But now these sites and dozens of smaller ones have something those marketers want: the attention of tens of millions of young people who increasingly avoid television commercials. So companies from Procter & Gamble to J. P. Morgan Chase, like so many lonely teenagers, are tricking out their online profiles and trying to make friends on the Web.
The sites are trying to move beyond banner ads and develop ways to integrate marketers into the fabric of their online communities. For example, marketers encourage the sites’ users to become “friends” with characters from their ads, and are experimenting with more elaborate campaigns that take advantage of the word-of-mouth effects of networking sites.
Big Internet companies are getting into the game, eager to profit from selling ads on these sites. Google agreed to pay the News Corporation $900 million over three and half years for the right to sell advertising on MySpace, the largest social networking site, where people create profile pages and receive messages from friends. And last week it agreed to buy YouTube, the fast-growing video-sharing site, for $1.65 billion.
Microsoft sells ads for Facebook, the second-largest networking site, and for Windows Live Spaces, its own blogging service.
“When blogs and Spaces first came out, people said no one would be willing to advertise on them,” said Joanne K. Bradford, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for advertising sales. “Consumers have voted. They said this is where I’m spending my time, and if you want to find me here, you have to get used to the fact that everything is not pretty and rosy here.”
In some ways, marketers on these sites are treated just like any other member. On MySpace they can have a profile page and a group of friends. Facebook allows marketers to use a feature that lets any member create a group that other members can join.
Advertisers can add features to their MySpace profiles and Facebook group pages like video clips, quizzes, downloadable goodies like ring tones, and, of course, links to their own Web sites.
These approaches run the risk of generating a sour reaction from the online community if site members feel marketers are going too far in trying to fit in.
But Danah Boyd, a sociologist who has studied MySpace, said its users did not reject commercialization out of hand.
“Teens have grown up with being barraged with advertising,” Ms. Boyd said. “They just want it to be relevant, but they expect it.”
The first companies to make the leap and advertise on these sites were movie studios, carmakers and others selling things of inherent interest to young people. Companies with more mundane products to pitch have had to work to create something that will get people talking online.
Unilever, for example, has turned its Axe deodorant into the No. 1 brand in less than four years by promising to help men attract more women. This spring it created a promotion around a group it called Gamekillers — people who get in the way of a seduction, like a guy with a British accent who gets all the attention. The pitch is that Axe helps men stay cool in the face of the Gamekillers.
The campaign included an hourlong program on MTV and a page on MySpace devoted to the topic, with message boards where people could trade complaints and tips about Gamekillers. Its online host was Christine Dolce, a busty model who was already a celebrity thanks to MySpace, where she has accumulated more than a million friends.
The campaign has lured more than 250,000 people to take the Gamekillers quiz on the MySpace page, and 74,000 people chose to designate the Gamekillers page as one of their “friends.”
“You have to be willing to let go,” said Kevin George, the vice president for deodorants at Unilever North America. “It worked for us.”
Companies have found that it is not easy to keep up with the online crowd. One of the first promotional tactics on MySpace was for marketers to create profile pages for people or fictional characters from their advertising campaigns. They then invited users to add those pages to their lists of friends.
Volkswagen created a profile page for Helga, the German character in some of its commercials, where users could see and comment on the commercials and download Helga ring tones, buddy icons and life-size images.
That approach is now looking a little tired, said Jeff Benjamin, interactive creative director for Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Volkswagen’s agency. “A year ago, everyone wanted to be Helga’s friend,” he said. “Today the reaction would be different. So many advertisers are doing it.”
As they start to build up advertising sales operations, the social networking sites are starting to develop offerings that let marketers take advantage of some of their features.
For example, Chase has a promotion on Facebook that implicitly uses a person’s friends to endorse its credit cards. When people join the Chase “+1” group on Facebook, they see a list of their other friends who have joined the group. The program gives members points when they do things like apply for a card and get others to sign up. Those points can be redeemed for prizes, donated to charity or given to other friends on Facebook.
“To be credible on Facebook, you can’t slap the Chase logo all over the site,” said Manning Field, the senior vice president for branding at Chase’s credit card unit. “We wanted a brand cue that said, ‘Wink, we get it. Facebook is about connectedness and social activity.’ ”
On Facebook, American Eagle created a group for its Aerie line of underwear with photos, discussion boards, a contest and clips of the television shows it sponsors.
Facebook also sees marketing opportunities in its new Newsfeed feature, which lets users see all the new information and photos added by their friends in one place. The feed tells your friends when you have joined a group, even one sponsored by an advertiser — another way Facebook is trying to use its network to amplify word-of-mouth advertising.
MySpace is even willing to change some of its standard features to help advertisers. For example, it normally lets members display photos of their top eight friends on their main profile pages. But people who added the movie “X-Men: The Last Stand” to their friends list were given the right to show 16 top friends.
Procter & Gamble is now trying to tap into a trend on Facebook where people try to see how many others they can get to join a group. It is running a contest for Crest Whitestrips that involves 20 different colleges and universities. The four schools that have the most students join the “Smile State” group will earn a free on-campus concert by an up-and-coming artist (only for members of the group, of course).
This same approach was used earlier, in a sneakier fashion. Last month a Facebook member using the name Brody Ruckus, who said he was a Virginia Tech student, created a group on Facebook and said that if 100,000 people joined it, his girlfriend would agree to have sex with him and another woman at the same time. The group soon attracted 430,000 members.
Some members became suspicious, however, and discovered that there was no Brody Ruckus registered at Virginia Tech. They traced the group to Ruckus Network, a college-oriented music service. Facebook shut down the group, citing its policy against commercial activities by members (unless, of course, they are paying advertisers).
Michael Bebel, the chief executive of Ruckus Networks in Herndon, Va., said the promotion was an experiment in guerrilla marketing that grew bigger than the company expected.
“The subject matter is a little polarizing,” Mr. Bebel said. “But,” he said, “the content isn’t any more extreme than what Charlie Sheen does in ‘Two and a Half Men,’ ” a sitcom involving a hip bachelor.
One of the biggest challenges for marketers is how to weave advertising into popular sites like YouTube that offer homemade videos.
YouTube has been experimenting with what are essentially on-demand commercials — ads on its home page with links to videos from sponsors. And it is allowing advertisers to create custom “channels,” collections of videos in any combination of soft or hard sell. A new one for Burger King features Diddy, the rap star, ordering a Whopper. It has also sold more elaborate promotions like the Cingular Underground, a music contest for the cellphone company.
Sometimes marketers find that in the end, the unplanned is what works best. Crispin Porter placed a new crop of Volkswagen commercials on YouTube and a handful of people watched them. Then a user uploaded a grainy version of one of the same commercials. It has been viewed more than 1.7 million times.
“You can’t explain this,” said Mr. Benjamin of Crispin Porter. “Someone passed it on to a friend, who passed it to others, until eventually it gets in the right people’s hands. You just can’t predict what will happen.”
Saul Hansell, The New York Times. October 16, 2006
Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.