Word of Mouth Online

To promote a new book, a Sci Fi publisher tried an unusual form of advertising -- it talked up the book in Internet forums and discussion groups.

Newgate Internet, a Sausalito, CA company, specializes in this kind of promotion and ran it for the publisher, which it declined to name for this article.

The program, launched earlier this year, ran for two months, and succeeded in spurring interest in the book, which made The New York Times bestseller list, according to company president Tom Dugan.

He calls the technique grass roots marketing, because it is literally word of mouth. Newgate representatives visit the discussion groups and post messages about the products in an effort to get group members to talk about them, tell their friends about them and ultimately buy them.

The potential audience is vast. "There are close to a million different forums on the Net," Dugan says, noting they can be found at Gogol.com and many other sites. The company doesn't go to Internet chat rooms, which are teen oriented. Instead, they use forums and discussion groups, which are available on the Net on every conceivable topic. They don't operate as live chats, but as places where members can go to post messages and exchange email with other members.

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Newgate starts each campaign by researching its database of 400,000 discussion groups and forums to find the ones that relate to its clients business. "Then we monitor them to see the flavor of the discussion and participate. We mention the products in a subtle way. Commercial messaging doesn't work," Dugan says.

Newgate's campaign for the publisher reached several hundred discussion groups and forums and ran right after the book had been published. There was no heavy advertising for the book and no online conversation about it before the campaign began, so it may have been instrumental in drumming up interest.

Among Newgate's other clients are Ubid.com, the Internet auction site, and Paramount Studios. Ubid launched itself with a Newgate campaign that went to mass sites like Yahoo and AOL as well as niche sites, such as news groups devoted to the specific products the company sells. "It was a good kick start to our existence," says Brian Williams, a Ubid spokesman. Paramount used Newgate to promote Star Trek: First Contact. The campaign went to over 400 film discussion groups, forums and Web sites. The campaign promoted visits to the Paramount Web site.

The cost of this kind of promotion is low in comparison with other forms of advertising, Dugan says. Costs are based on the duration of the campaigns and the size of the audience they reach.

Marissa Gluck, a Jupiter Media Metrix analyst, understands the appeal of forum and discussion group advertising, but warns marketers to be careful. "You don't want to come off seeming crass," she says, noting that some marketers turn group members off by promoting products too strongly. A grass roots campaign for The Blair Witch Project generated complaints from fans who believed the studio was misrepresenting itself, she says.

Group members are very dedicated so you need to be cautious and test the waters. You don't want them to bad mouth you," Gluck says.

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