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Marketers blog-on to a hot new teen outreach tool

AS if the teen mind space isn't already crowded enough, there's another new media stream competing for the demo's attention now. Blogs, or web logs, are essentially on-line diaries - simple web pages where 'bloggers' can express themselves, link to their favorite sites and create communities of people with common interests or strong opinions to air. And a recent Pew Internet study estimates that as many as one in four teens maintain blogs, making them a pervasive medium with enormous teen marketing potential.
August 1, 2003

AS if the teen mind space isn’t already crowded enough, there’s another new media stream competing for the demo’s attention now. Blogs, or web logs, are essentially on-line diaries – simple web pages where ‘bloggers’ can express themselves, link to their favorite sites and create communities of people with common interests or strong opinions to air. And a recent Pew Internet study estimates that as many as one in four teens maintain blogs, making them a pervasive medium with enormous teen marketing potential.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed. When Dr Pepper/Seven Up was looking for a promo strategy to launch its new milk-based soft drink Raging Cow, the company’s Dallas, Texas-based agency The Richards Group picked blogs as the communication outlet of choice. ‘We kept hearing the voice of the cow as we discussed what to do,’ notes Richards’ director of interactive strategy Todd Copilevitz. ‘Finally we said: ‘Well, maybe the cow has a story to tell. But rather than us telling it, let’s do it in a format that’s native to teens.”

Richards then turned to the experts, flying in some of the busiest teen bloggers in the U.S. to consult on the project. The resulting site (www.ragingcow.com) has the bovine sounding off on topics like robots and learning to drive, and even has links to his fictitious friends. It went live in mid-January and was attracting 200 new users a minute by February, with the product hitting shelves on March 1.

Criticism leveled against blog marketing claims that it’s somehow underhanded – that advertisers are co-opting these communities for commercial gain. ‘That’s certainly something we’ve been accused of,’ says Copilevitz, who stresses that product information is kept separate from blog content in an effort to dissociate the sell from the entertainment; when surfers log onto the main site, they can choose to visit the blog or visit the product site. ‘We never in any way said to people: ‘Try this and say good things about us.’ In fact, we went to great lengths to make Dr Pepper realize that if teens don’t like this stuff, they will have no compunction about going on their sites and telling everyone that it sucks.’

A blog’s immediacy and honesty might be too menacing for some brands. ‘It’s a big step for a company to take – putting the endorsement of its product into the hands of people it has no control over,’ says Copilevitz. But Paul Kurnit, president and founder of full-service kids marketing agency Kurnit Communications/KidShop, thinks the instant verdict of blogs could be a good thing. ‘If the product is no good, you’re dead in the water anyway. If you’re a marketer, you’re almost better off dying a quick death than a slow death – it’s cheaper.’

Despite the perils, Dr Pepper readily embraced Richards’ blog-centric pitch. ‘They know what it takes to break through,’ Copilevitz observes. ‘The reality is that a 17-year-old today is on the computer instant-messaging, surfing the web, listening to MP3s, has a TV on in the background and is talking on the phone – all at the same time. That’s a lot of technological clutter to break through, and the only way you’re going to do it is by finding a way to be in their environment naturally.’

Recognizing blogs’ popularity with teens but wanting to avoid the potential for negative publicity, Kodak’s Atlanta, Georgia-based PR firm Ketchum has taken an entirely different approach. Instead of using blogs to make a pitch, it’s helping teens create blogs of their own as part of a promotion for the PLUSdigital camera.

Building on an existing relationship between Kodak and The WB, Ketchum has given a yet-to-be-revealed WB teen TV star their own personal web log in order to demonstrate to young bloggers how to add features (especially photos), create content, etc. The helpful how-to blog will be reachable via the WB’s home page as of August 1.

In a separate but complimentary initiative that also begins on August 1, running until the start of the school year, New York’s Idea Connections has put together a CD of blog-friendly content that will be packaged with the camera. The CDs contain tips for building a better blog, scenes from WB shows from the upcoming season, music, pictures and other teen-appealing content. Saatchi & Saatchi will simultaneously run a print and TV ad campaign to plug the camera’s uses.

For his part, Paul Kurnit thinks the negative hype surrounding blog usage by marketers is overstated: ‘In terms of this kind of outreach, if the kid doesn’t want to play, he’s not going to play. But there are lots of kids who define themselves by being in the know and by being the first to spread the word.’

Copilevitz believes blogs will soon become an effective tool in the agency repertoire, provided they’re handled correctly. ‘Don’t use blogs for a CPM equation,’ he cautions. ‘You can’t. Blogs are a communication tool.

‘I think their biggest impact will be on the small business that doesn’t have a marketing budget, but has a message to get out,’ says Copilevitz. He estimates that because blog software is free, setting one up can cost as little as a few days of an in-house web guru’s time or as much as US$70,000 to US$90,000 if a company chooses to invest in creative and writing talent. ‘For larger advertisers, if they are willing to engage in a dialogue, it can be a very powerful way to open doors to consumers. But you have to be willing to say something worth reading, and you have to be willing to listen to the responses.’

Although the technology might intimidate the uninitiated, what lurks beneath the on-line and interactive facade should be familiar to most marketers. ‘It’s the oldest form of advertising we know,’ observes Kurnit. ‘Word of mouth preceded just about everything.’

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