How nerds get the last laugh
Once upon a time, being called a nerd was a bad thing. But no longer. They have had their revenge - the best kind: living well. This educated, affluent group has plenty of fun and prestige. The tech industry provided a safe haven for math wizards, and the Internet let them find each other - while making tons of money. Über-nerd Bill Gates may have been a 50-pound weakling as a kid, but today he's one of the world's richest men.
The Internet and, now, social media have let nerds and geeks self-aggregate. As they congregate online, they're the Sherpas for carrying technology products and services across the chasm, and they're also sought by marketers for their golden touch with everyday consumer products.
Says social marketing consultant Mike Prasad, "Tech mavens and social media mavens are passionate instigators of conversation. Generally, they are early adopters and seekers of the new and novel. They also tend to run in the same social circles online and are increasingly tracked by others as an indicator of what is on the cutting edge."
Of course, this market is platinum for any gadget or high-tech toy, as Woot has found. Every day, woot.com conducts an Internet fire sale of small batches of electronics and other goods. Founded by self-described geek Matt Rutledge and his brother Dave, the site's snarky humor is what appeals to them.
"We consider ourselves our own audience," says creative director Dave Rutledge. "It's hard to explain to somebody who isn't a geek of some kind how to market to geeks. There's too much nuance to it." It evidently hits the mark: The four-year-old site now has 1.75 million users, and two spin-offs, shirt.woot.com and wine.woot.com.
But Rutledge has found four important angles for marketing to geeks, which he defines as people who obsess over something and want to know everything about it: skepticism, self-deprecation, transparency and lots of stats.
"We know our audience will be very skeptical of anyone selling anything," he says. "Does it live up to its hype or not? If not, we want to be the ones to say it rather than having our comments fill up. At the same time, we're admitting that we are trying to sell this stuff."
To satisfy that numbers jones, woot.com posts sales stats that break it down by how many people bought multiples, for example, as well as real-time maps showing where buyers are coming from. "We think it's cool, and users seem to have fun looking for patterns. Pattern-finding may be the geek aspect," Rutledge adds.
Know It Alls
It's not surprising that the super-smart enjoy one-upping their egghead friends. Displaying competence and building an online reputation became a geek game of choice in Web 1.0, with sites like Slashdot that let users rate each other's forum posts. Instructables.com takes this into the social media world: The site lets people post tutorials for almost anything, from microwaved chocolate cake to a plasma cutter. With comments and ratings, it's the place where people with weird hobbies find each other.
"It makes being smart cool again," says Rob Pfeiffer, interactive sales manager for Popular Science, which sells ads on Instructables and the blog Toolmonger, as well as popsci.com. It's cool for advertisers, too, with an almost equal split between men and women, and 70 percent bringing in more than $60,000 a year.
To promote its batteries, Sony ran a contest for gizmos and gadgets, with packs of rechargeable batteries as the prize. Says Pfeiffer, "Where else are you going to go to find people who build robots?"
Sears used the three sites to connect the Craftsman brand of tools with this younger, smarter, hipper audience. Because these readers love contests where they can show off their ideas and creations, Sears used a Workshop of the Future competition as the backbone of the campaign. The contest was heavily promoted with banner ads and rich-media units, while contest information appeared on the right side of most content pages. Click-through to the contest's microsite was outstanding, according to Pfeiffer.
Social media has become the primary way to reach the geekily-inclined. It also makes nerds exceedingly easy to reach, according to Rob Cooper, president and strategic director of PlusROI Online Marketing Inc. He says, "Any company with a viable offering for a specific group can have direct, one-on-one interaction with their constituents." An online word-of-mouth campaign for GPhotospace, a photo-sharing application, garnered more attention - and more customers - than a traditional PR campaign he mounted for a similar venture-funded software company.
But, as you've probably heard ad nauseam, you can't "market" in social media; you've got to relate. And, you will have to chase down this elusive audience. For example, Allyson Beatrice, a goddess in the cult of science fiction TV show fans, advises those wanting to start fan sites to avoid corporate-run communities like the plague. "You want to roll your own," she says. "On those sites that are done by fans for other fans - at least you know where you stand."
Beatrice, the author of Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby?, warns that marketers who show up in communities will have to interact with everyone from a 10-year-old troll to "someone who can kill you with a pen." The key, she says, is to listen more than talk - and to seed the Internet with secret treasures. "When fans can find a way to get a secret thing others don't know about, something that feels like they discovered it on their own, it makes them feel special."
Microsoft played into that desire for arcane knowledge with Quiztopia, a quiz-building tool for Facebook created by Context Optional.
"It's designed for incredibly obscure and difficult quizzes that require actual research to get a good score," says Context Optional cofounder Scott Kleper. "Quiztopia is targeted at people who have deep knowledge on, for example, Battlestar Galactica."
People can quickly build quizzes to publish on Facebook and elsewhere; the interface includes a search box so people taking the quiz can research their answers using Microsoft Live Search. The tactic is to build fun online applications that will get people to try the search product - without marketing it directly.
Says Sebastian Gard, Microsoft's director of digital marketing and social media for search, "Live Search is a really good search, but it's a bit overshadowed by a bigger, more well-known search. So, to get people to think differently, we almost have to sneak up on them."
Gard, who admits to being a bit of a nerd, adds, "Nerds
are becoming an important part of consumer
marketing." Marketing applications like this are being created and disseminated by people who are technical, who like code. "It's become our world, really."