RAM: AIM at Your Target

When NBC's Universal Pictures created the marketing plan for its teen horror thriller "Cry Wolf," it pursued an unconventional advertising venue. To promote the flick, which hit theaters nationwide last month, it used a medium that was, until quite recently, considered marginal real estate: instant messaging. Rogue Pictures, a division of NBC Universal, teamed up with America Online to create a mobile horror movie trivia game for AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) users. To play the game, AIM users would text their screen names to a "Cry Wolf" screen address.

The studio is hardly alone. Many blue-chip advertisers across categories -- from 20th Century Fox to Procter & Gamble, Doritos, and Nike -- are increasingly selecting instant messaging screens, specifically AOL's AIM, as the way to generate buzz. "Between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. each day, at any given moment, there are at least 7.5 to 9 million people using AIM," says Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president and general manager of AOL's AIM. "As anybody coming from the world of media knows, that's a 7.5 to 9 share. People from the TV world see that, and it just turns their head around."

ComScore Media Metrix estimates that there are approximately 80 million IM users who regularly exchange roughly 60 billion messages a month. With 42 million users, AOL owns more than 50 percent of the IM market. The average IM user spends 6.5 hours each day with the application open.

Over the past two years, AOL has developed and promoted a wider variety of ad formats within its IM products, allowing advertisers to go beyond small static banners to stimulate user interaction within the IM chat window with Flash and video. The AIM Bot program enables advertisers to create automated personalities that people can put on their buddy lists. For instance, a Wall Street Journal Online Bot offers current news headlines, story summaries, and stock quotes on demand to users who send their im address.

For a recent campaign for its Mustang, Ford used rich media to have a video of the car actually driving out of a buddy-list icon and onto the user's desktop. "When we first started with IM a little over a year ago," recalls John Gray, Ford's director of digital media, "we basically used already-made TV spots, but as time's gone on, we've seen that there are great opportunities for creating video ads specifically for the im environment."

Other advertisers are getting the message as well. AIM has seen a 100 percent annual growth rate in sales for each of the past two years and expects to double its sales again in 2005.

IM technology is broadening its reach with a host of next-generation features. AOL, as well as rivals Yahoo!, MSN, and now Google (which launched its Google Talk application in August), are each vying to gain an edge by expanding im to include voiceover Internet protocol, social networking software, and video messaging.

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