Get Born

There are plenty of ways to get lost on the Web, but how do you break through?

In April 2007, Amber Lee Ettinger was one of thousands of struggling actress-models pounding the pavements of New York. By June, she was internationally recognized, appearing on news and talk shows around the world. You may not know
the name Ettinger, but you know her face - and her body. Ettinger is the Obama Girl, star of the Internet video phenomenon "I Got a Crush on Obama." 

We'll never know how many ice cream sundaes Lana Turner consumed at Schwab's before she was discovered, but today, people like Ettinger literally become sensations overnight, when their media goes viral.

A couple of other stars were born from "Crush on Obama": creator Ben Relles and his political satire site, Barely Political. (It didn't seem to slow the so-called Omentum, either.) The clip is funny, entertaining and features a hot woman. But stellar content wasn't enough to make this video one of YouTube's most popular clips of 2007, based on views, rating, discussion and sharing. A canny social media strategy put it over the top.

Relles' initial idea was "I Got a Crush on Jack Bauer," a musical homage to the hero of the TV show 24. Then, the former exec's marketing instincts kicked in.

Music and comedy were blowing up on YouTube, but it was also an election year. Politics was on the minds of millions of Americans, and political humor offered a clearly identifiable set of bloggers to target. Quickly shifting gears, Relles completed production of "Crush on Obama" for less than $2,000, posted it online and e-mailed about 20 top political bloggers.

"Brands have to have a clearer strategy in place: Who are they going after? Why would this audience share it - beyond it being funny," Relles says. "Crush on Obama" was immediately picked up by mainstream media as an example of the importance of consumer-generated video in the 2008 presidential election.

But Relles realized that the bigger challenge was sustaining attention beyond the initial boom, so he made sure that anyone whose interest was piqued could uncover more information. He created Obama Girl profiles on MySpace and Facebook, as well as a blog. "Start with the YouTube video, but create a story that extends well beyond it," Relles says. A key decision was launching Barely Political, a satirical Web site, rather than a Web site focusing on Obama Girl. That allowed Relles to extend his initial hit into a robust online media property featuring several regular shows - which he then sold to Next New Networks, the Internet video channel. 

The Awareness Chasm

This story, along with things like the Coke-Mentos phenomenon and the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, makes marketers salivate. The challenge is crossing the chasm of awareness without jumping the shark with a lame and phony "Astroturf" campaign.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review last winter, John A. Deighton and Leora Kornfeld wrote that today, "marketing may be less a matter of domination and control, and more a matter of fitting in."

An April 2007 survey conducted by Fox Interactive Media with Isobar, Carat USA, TNS, TRU and Marketing Evolution on behalf of MySpace found that 70 percent of Americans ages 15-34 had at least tried some sort of social networking. As one survey respondent said, "I don't want companies to advertise to me. I want them to be my friend." And friends tell friends, leading to what MySpace's own marketers call the momentum effect (apparently momentum is big these days).

Instead of trying to get in front of a few influencers, what marketers need to do is make sure their message passes through filters and gets to the right people, says Shawn Gold, a partner in the new-media marketing consultancy Social Approach. There are two kinds of filters, according to Gold: technology filters and humans.

Collaborative filtering technology is getting a boost from the overlay of social information - an individual's network of online friends now buzzed about as the social graph. It's moved from Amazon-style recommendations to "I've been watching the habits of your friends, and this is what your friends are doing," says Gold. This shift allows publishers to surface appropriate content for different site visitors.

That's what Fox Broadcasting is doing. Each Fox-TV affiliate operates an independent, video-rich Web site. The videos on a station's landing page get plenty of attention, but as soon as they rotate off to make way for newer stuff, they quickly fade into obscurity. Now, they're able to tap into the anonymous behavioral patterns of their Web sites' audiences thanks to technology from Collarity.

"Everyone knows searching for and ranking videos is a challenge. The main reason is because you don't have enough metadata to know how to rank a video," says Collarity CEO Levy Cohen. Collarity uses people's attention as metadata, offering archived videos to the people most likely to be interested in them, based on an analysis of aggregated behavior. Its technology can deliver recommendations based on the behavior of only a few hundred users. This produces more natural results than relying on site visitors to tag and promote content, because in fact, only a very small minority is willing to do that - and they may have a different agenda than merely getting the word out about good stuff.

This adds up to more money for publishers. Levy claims that Collarity's search widget increases page views between 10 and 25 percent, thereby increasing revenue from sponsorships and display advertising.

As ads become content, thanks to video sharing, marketers could also use Collarity to jump-start a viral push. "Take a video you just released, show it to a general audience, and see who picks it and who drops it," Levy recommends. "Once you've determined who's interested, you can start promoting to them."

Oh, the Humanity

You can no longer just kiss the butts of a few A-list bloggers and get traction for your social-media campaign; people still act as filters for consumer- and marketer-generated content, but now there are a lot more of them. Finding the mavens, influencers and connectors is harder than ever.

The site, an online community focused on music discovery, lets people create and share playlists. (The playlists link back to wherever the music is legally hosted.) Playlists are a social filter, says founder Jeremy Riney. "We don't use algorithms, we use actual people - your friends."

The fast-growing site has 20 million registered users and 25 million playlists (with an average of 8.5 million page views per day and 478,000 unique users per month). People can subscribe to each other's playlists, and post their own on a variety of social networking sites. If they do - and if they also opt in to letting access that information - the company gets a view of their social graph, as well as their diverse interests.

Whether you're an unsigned band or a big-name brand, "You can't be passive in this
environment," Riney says. "But there's a fine line between participation and spamming things out." His advice is, "Seed the network. Go to your already existing fans. It's not spam; they're already your fans."

MySpace has found that this approach works better for advertisers than requiring people to become friends in order to access content, says Heidi Browning, senior vice president of client solutions for Fox Interactive Media. "It's important for people to want you as a friend," she says.

At Ad Angles

There's still a role for plain old-fashioned advertising in the seeding process, according to Gold of Social Approach. "People advertise in social media for efficiencies of word-of-mouth," he says. "You have to put those positioning prompts out there and get people to grab onto them." The key, he says, is to offer something of value, wrapped in a tool set that lets people easily redistribute it.

A recent MySpace campaign for Cherry Coke coordinated all these elements. The brand launched a contest to redesign its MySpace page for a day. Contestants weren't required to include Cherry Coke content, but the company supplied a whole pallet of assets that people could use for their submissions and also to decorate their own profiles. Coke bought ads on the home page and throughout the site to promote the contest.

The contest drew tens of thousands of submissions, and several hundred thousand people voted for their favorites. They also scattered Cherry Coke throughout MySpace via their personal profile pages.

Few marketers seem ready for this new world of social marketing. Many are still reaching for that first viral contamination. Fox/MySpace's Browning urges them to look beyond that horizon. "Marketers need to think ahead: Now you have them, what's next? What's my annual communication plan within a social network? What's your next program, content, idea so you can continue the dialogue." 

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