May Everyone Connect Always

Recent studies published by the PEW Center and America Online confirm what many have already intuited in their daily lives--that instant messaging (IM) is a powerful phenomenon that remains ascendant.

With essentially all Internet-connected teens and over 50 million adults using IM to communicate daily, constituting more than 12 percent of all Internet users, it is now clear that IM is not just a fad. IM is projected to surpass e-mail in total messages sent by the end of 2006. Considering that e-mail, regarded as the most popular Internet application, had a head start of more than 20 years on messenger applications, IM is clearly a historically powerful, sustained phenomenon.

IM is unique among applications because it is always on. Users may be visiting Web sites, doing research, sending and/or reading e-mail, but IM is alive and active on their desktop (and increasingly, on their mobile phones as well). In addition to always being on, IM is the great "in/out board" of the Internet--you can instantly see which of your friends or associates are online at all times. Two people IMing are engaged in a shared, highly focused activity that is matched only by face-to-face and telephone conversations. It is interesting to note that a surprising number of teens actually prefer IM to telephone or face-to-face conversation--for a variety of reasons including the ability to multitask, the somewhat "anonymous" nature of text conversation, and privacy from prying parents. You may think you know what POS means, but ask your teen... to them, it's an IM acronym for "parent over shoulder."

Creative brand marketers have reaped major rewards from IM's uniquely powerful characteristics. In 2001, Pepsi launched a new beverage called "Blue." One of the program goals was to leverage and reinforce the Pepsi Web portal with online offers related to Blue. The top-performing offer, by far, was a set of animated talking emoticons ("smiley faces") featuring the voice of Will Smith. This emoticon offer had zero advertising support, yet it triggered over 1 million downloads from the Pepsi portal in just a couple of weeks.

Within the past year, major brands including American Express, Build-a-Bear Workshop, Sprite, Fremantle Media, GMC, Hewlett-Packard, Kimberly-Clark, Marvel Entertainment, and Rolling Stone have promoted their brand using IM. Brand marketers who ignore IM do so at their peril.

It is human nature to optimize the tools we are most familiar with. Broadcast media have been the backbone of brand marketing plans for decades, and still offer powerful reach. Evolution shows us that all life continuously adapts. Brand marketing must adapt as well. The red flags for broadcast media are obvious by now. Broadcast advertising is saturated, and being regarded more and more as noise.

IM, on the other hand, represents an ascendant and relatively noise-free channel. IM has a uniquely deep reach into its strongest demographics, with their IM on for hours a day and actively messaging more than 60 minutes per day. IM is also more than just messaging--it can also deliver games, videos, and other activities that create a robust experience for the user. What television program can deliver 60 minutes of active, focused attention per day, every day? And what television or radio program can reach friends with messages and promotional offers simultaneously, while they are in the act of conversing? I couldn't think of one either.

Brand marketers have great choices when they integrate IM into their advertising and promotion plans. They can choose one or more IM platforms to achieve any imaginable combination of reach and CRM/reinforcement goals. The strong and healthy competition in the arena ensures that brand marketers will be rewarded for getting involved now, as new brand marketing tools and programs are developed and deployed. The digital divide is being crossed every day by consumers, increasingly now with IM. It's time that the brand marketers join them.

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