Don't Forget To Flush

I understand immediately the sensibility of the mobile site, if only because I am now standing guard over a sixteen-year-old lass who is attracting more strays than the ASPCA. Crush or Flush, from IceBreaker, Inc., cleverly combines a flirting/dating/social networking community with one of mobile's strong suits, sampling data shallowly and quickly. You upload a pic and profile of your own and then browse others by gender, geography and tags. If you "Flush" them, you move on to the next profile, but if two people Crush one another, then the system hooks them up anonymously via text chats. It mimics the rituals of speed dating and clubbing but in a safe and mobile way.

My daughter, who is too young for the service, is already crushing and flushing the old-fashioned way. She just brings boys around to see how they fare in Dad's home-game version -- "Crush AND Flush." Here is the way it works. I never give outright approval for any of these suitors, because I know none of them is going to last, anyway. Either I "Crush" them with a withering critique afterwards or I "Flush" them with a dismissive "OK, but he won't last." When my daughter inevitably discards them for one petty teen reason or another, I come off as a genius for my prescient insight. Given the capricious, rapid-fire heart of a sixteen-year-old, Dad has discovered a way of being right 100% of the time.



But of course, the smart fellows who run IceBreaker have the same conundrum as a Dad. They are overseeing a process that is so absorbing and all-consuming that it is tough to get the kids to notice anything else, namely ads. I just have to keep my girl's head in her homework most of the week, but these guys have a harder task, monetizing social media. It is no secret that social networks of all sorts suffer poor ad performance precisely because they are so involving for users. Getting a sponsor noticed in a social environment without ticking off the members is a dark art no one has learned.

Joshua Levine, vice president of marketing at IceBreaker, is promising "a new immersive brand experience that goes beyond text and banner ads." Launching at ad:tech this week, this "Golden Ticket" is a branded profile that is folded into the queue of member profiles. It looks just like a Crush or Flush opportunity, and in fact it uses the same mechanism. A user comes upon perhaps one or two of these images as she rifles through a stack of prospects that she has filtered by age, gender and geography. She can "Flush" it and move on to the next human profile or decide to "Crush" it and explore a subsequent call to action page that might offer a ringtone, click to call, coupon, or any other marketing proposition. The user can also befriend these brands and share them with others.

In some ways, the Golden Ticket notion is not that far removed from the branding we see already at Facebook and MySpace in the countless brand profile pages. The mobile platform is unique, however. First, there is intrusiveness. Branded profiles in online social networks must pull users to them or rely on viral distribution, but IceBreaker's approach pushes a brand to the user and also dominates the page. Levine says the company is selling placement that is exclusive by category, so auto, mobile content, etc. will have full share of voice in this environment. Users only will see one ad per category in a session, which on average is about 100 profiles. And because IceBreaker has full profiles and personal preference tags associated with every member, it can target ads to user by age, gender, geography, zip code and stated interests.

In a test of the Golden Ticket model over Valentine's Day, Levine says, "we found that 82% of members chose to 'crush' the brand." Within such a new model it is hard to say what those numbers mean or whether such response rates could hold up at all once the novelty wears off. Surely it is promising, however. The sponsor is in your face but in a format that is consistent with the content experience. The approach also leverages scarcity. Only one or two of these branded profiles will come up in a given session of browsing, so they almost feel like found treasure nuggets.

Like a lot of ad models that leverage social media, the Golden Ticket idea works only insofar as both publisher and advertiser reach a higher bar than either industry generally achieves. On the publisher's side, this stuff had better be well-targeted. If the ad is not really relevant to my interests or situation, then it feels even more intrusive than a banner ad. Social networks are in a bit of a bind when it comes to advertising. They have a highly engaging and intimate environment that can be sullied easily by overbearing commercial messages. CruchorFlush has a built-in advantage here, because the format actually lets you register dislike of the offer, flushing it the same way you would a loser profile. .

On the sponsor's side, the creative execution needs to blend with the environment. Is a profile of Ford Focus or "bonus ringtones" good enough in this context? If marketing really wants to slip into this person-to-person community eco-system, then it must learn a new and better language. Something like the Golden Ticket in a queue of profiles is a very interesting creative space, but I am not sure we know how to fill it yet. Every brand manager fantasizes that there is some loyal audience out there who just craves and proselytizes their laundry detergent. In reality I think there are only a handful of brands that garner that kind of knee-jerk loyalty.

Unless they are clever and offer real value in these environments, most brand advertisers will suffer the same fate as the last few "boyfriends" my daughter browsed in our house.

"Dad, don't say it," the girl cuts me off as she shuts the front door on the last one. "I'm getting tired of him, too. He's even geekier than you."

Crushed AND Flushed!

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