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May 17, 2004: Creating Brand Buzz in Forums

Company tests delivering branded messages in community forums without spamming or spying.

A Long Beach, CA-based company is testing a graphics-based branding tool marketers can use to promote themselves in online communities.

Hype Council, established in 1999 by Scott Meldrum, specializes in what he calls "grassroots marketing initiatives." Over the past six weeks, he has been testing one such initiative dubbed Online Community Outreach (OCO), with two projects, each preceded by a six-week research phase.

"We used a video game and a music artist, and chose test forums from pre-existing relationships," says Meldrum. "We selected four forums for each project (most forums averaged 20,000 members; one had 3,000 members), and we did compensate forum moderators for their time."

Hype Council created OCO after surveying forum leaders about ways to create brand awareness in community forums without having to resort to spamming or spying. The key is in partnering with various forum leaders to create marketing programs that are: permission-based and endorsed by the leaders; interactive, not intrusive or interruptive: and cost- and results-effective.

OCO would provide three levels of forum sponsorships. The first would embed a client's brand and link directly within the moderator's signature. When a message is posted, the brand would be in that space. Meldrum says this would result in "thousands of interactions at each message board and greater brand acceptance since the forum moderator is a key influencer within the community."

The second would enable a client to host or sponsor an interactive thread in the busiest community forum of a targeted Web site. They would 'rent' real estate in the form of a 'sticky' thread in a forum for a pre-specified duration -- and the sticky threads stay at the top of the forum, rather than rotate in relation to use. It also includes a banner ad on the thread pages.

"As the thread sponsor, you intensify the users experience with a graphic interface and a cool and interactive topic that encourages response and invites interaction," says Meldrum.

The third combines the first two and covers an entire forum. "The interface is seamless with the message board, yet completely specific to a product, including color and graphic integration," adds Meldrum.

Forum's Offer Pinpointed Targeting

So what's the value to brand marketers?

  • Targeting -- Each forum would be pre-qualified for target and traffic compliancy. Meldrum says every forum is approached as a singular asset and not as an "aggregate number of impressions."
  • Position -- Rather than serve the typical ad units at the top of a page or tower positions in most forums, the OCO service will integrate a client's brand directly within a forum member's experience.

Meldrum say Hype Council's OCO is the first graphic-based program like this -- others use text and keywords. Vibrant Media, for example, provides a number of contextual keyword advertising products to deliver advertisers' targeted messages. Its IntelliTXT product creates sponsored text links from keywords, hooks and phrases within article-based content. The user-activated advertising message provides users with relevant product information that advertisers deliver in context.

One Piece of the Pie

Certain types of products and/or services may not be good fits for and OCO-type product, Meldrum says.

"If you put John Kerry's face in a sponsor thread in any forum, the conversations would not be genuine," he says. "OCO would not be good for political campaigns or for certain types of products -- consumable stuff like food, for instance. In short, anything that a community might find laughable or questionable -- since community perception and acceptance is a big part of the balancing act."

Meldrum also adds that a few of Hype Council's clients expressed concern with OCO since it leaves their products/services open to any comments -- positive or negative.

"Inviting and encouraging comment or opinion is hard to do. Controlling the tenor of those comments is near impossible," he says. "Our position is that it's better to have them commenting on your brand rather than on your competitor's."

Meldrum says the OCO service is not a silver bullet -- it should be used with other micro-partnership strategies. While online forum participants are an elite group of opinion makers, they are a relatively small group. And Meldrum says the CPM and CPC numbers reflect that -- the company's OCO model is intended to enhance an online media buy, not replace it.

But Meldrum says even large Fortune 500 companies could benefit from using a service like OCO if they have a new initiative or service to unveil since they could carve out a very specific market share via targeted online community forums.

Neal Leavitt is president of Fallbrook, CA-based Leavitt Communications, an international marketing communications company with affiliates in Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong; Bangalore, India; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He writes frequently on Internet and high technology topics. Contact him at, 760/639-2900.

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