Turkeys, Turkeys Everywhere

Graying digerati like me will recall a program that tried years ago, called "surround session" advertising. In this model, a single sponsor would follow the user wherever she roamed at the site with the brand message. By targeting users, not just pages and context, the Times was creating the feel of a fully sponsored experience that had a lot of possibilities.

It always seemed to me that the real sponsorship model ("this content brought you by") had a lot of untapped promise online. The concept not only ties the sponsor more deeply to the content brand but it also communicates the unspoken bargain of free media: we give you editorial gratis and in exchange you rent us a small slice of your consciousness. When that bargain is associated with a single advertiser, I believe it carries more weight. A specific advertiser is responsible for giving you this content. The ad network model that ultimately triumphed online lets a publisher sublet that rented consciousness to others in a way that I think diminishes the dynamic and the potential halo effect for any one advertiser.

The surround session model the Times tried also invites iterative advertising, creative storyboarding throughout a session. If a single advertiser has full share of voice, they are able to speak in different ways during the experience.

I was reminded of the untapped potential of this surround-session idea when the mobile gaming community Cellufun walked me through a Butterball Turkey campaign it conducted last Thanksgiving. Cellufun is a low-res, WAP-based game site that lets users create their own home pages and avatars to play a variety of games, from simple card and casino affairs to virtual pet and farming challenges. It has achieved admirable scale, with over 5 million registered users. The Butterball integration invited users on its own home page to "Celebrate Thanksgiving" and host a virtual dinner. Players (hosts) could choose recipes, plan the meal and even buy ingredients with virtual Cellupoints in the virtual Cellumall.

What interests me about this campaign is the immersive quality of its many elements. Members could text "Turkey" to a short code to get recipes and tips for Thanksgiving. The Butterballs they could choose for their virtual dinner actually came in the varieties available in retail stores, which not only gave brand exposure but deeper details about the product. "The game was coded in such a way that people realized the Butterball turkey was a more sumptuous meal and they got more points for it being juicier and tastier," says Keith Katz, vice president of marketing. The virtual store in which users shopped sported the Butterball logo. And of course there were banners running both inside and around the games.

The results of surrounding Cellufun Thanksgiving planners with the Butterball brand were strong. Players purchased 325,000 Butterball turkeys in the Cellumall, and 83% of the game players used that brand of turkey in their meals. There were nearly 4 million logo impressions just in the game which itself generated 40 million page views. Banners running throughout the site averaged a 1.4% CTR. Does selling 325,000 birds in virtual space translate at all into actual store sales? I don't know, but it doesn't seem like a metric any brand manager should walk away from too quickly.

Of course, one person's "surround session" is another person's idea of bothersome stalking. Perhaps 40 million banner impressions got a bit tiresome for many viewers, but the sponsored game itself offered enough interesting entertainment to seem like a fair exchange of value. The trick comes in mixing up the creative and using that lone share of voice to say something to consumers of interest throughout the experience. Butterball and Cellufun at least tried to come at the user from different angles rather than batter their brains with the same message.

I don't know if we ever will get to that level of sophistication in mobile advertising. Lord knows, we haven't gotten there in much of Web advertising. I love the fact that Microsoft Mobile was underwriting so many early mobile sites from familiar content brands a couple of years ago, but all they did was slap their logo on every page of the site.

The mobile platform is such a concentrated experience that focuses attention on such a small space, it seems to me the opportunities for richer sponsorship are waiting for us beyond the banner. Go ahead and pay for our mobile content experience. Rent a slice of our consciousness. But don't waste the space with a static logo. We'll give you our attention, but tell us a story.
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