Chatroulette, one of the edgier new social media services to hit the Web in recent months, is a challenging proposition for marketers. Matching live video chat users at random, it's gained a large following of more adventurous chat users despite (or perhaps because) of the high frequency of exhibitionism -- read, some guy you don't know whippin' it out. On one hand, it's got all the makings of a good ad medium: a sizeable, engaged user base of almost a million users, who are by definition fairly receptive to whatever messages someone wants to deliver to them. On the other hand, there's that unavoidable whippin' it out aspect, which is enough to send most marketing execs running for the hills.
One interesting approach that avoids the riskier elements is being tested out by Travelocity, the online travel booking service, using the iconic garden gnome from its TV commercials. The "Roaming Gnome" is appearing on the video chat site holding a sign that urges users to take a vacation in one of a number of destinations. Travelocity's ad agency, McKinney, also has a staffer appearing on the chat site.
The promotion is fairly unintrusive, thanks in large part to the very simple rules of Chatroulette: if a user doesn't find the gnome amusing, they can just hit "next" and move on to someone else. Of course the agency employees running the promotion have to be prepared to see all kinds of weird, shocking, potentially disturbing stuff -- but that's why they pay them, right?
The Travelocity promotion makes a lot more sense to me than another marketing effort on Chatroulette launched by French Connection UK last month. The UK promotion promised $375 worth of vouchers for whoever can set up a date on Chatroulette first. The rationale was that the winner can use the vouchers to buy a new outfit to look fetching on their semi-blind date.
This earlier attempt just struck me as foolhardy. I'm all in favor of edgy approaches to marketing, but what if somebody got, say, raped and/or murdered while vying for the prize? FCUK didn't get approval or oversight from Chatroulette for this promotion, so the legal liability is all on the retailer. Previous experience with social networks shows, unfortunately, that criminals have realized their potential for choosing victims.
The Travelocity promotion, by contrast, doesn't put anyone at risk -- besides the gnome, who looks like a tough little bastard.