There is much to deliberate about the extent to which the Internet is personal. It can be personalized, of course; there are plenty of examples of sites and applications and ads that are designed to do exactly that – to customize the online experience for the individual user's preferences and needs. Certainly online dating sites are personal, in the sense that they help users create intimate (to varying degrees) profiles of themselves with the purpose of matching them with others who share – or at least appreciate – their most personal traits.
Social networks have evolved to fill a similar niche; they are destinations so personalized that they've actually come to supplant some forms of offline communication (when was the last time you saw pictures of a friend's children in print form…pre-Facebook, of course). But while these online offerings excel at personalizing the Web for its users, they do not necessarily have what one would consider to be "a human touch."
In a way, digital marketers are always working to create campaigns with a human element to them, whether with placements and creative that incite a deeply human reaction (excitement, enjoyment, laughter), or with a message that resonates with consumers on a sentimental level. In the famous words of "Leo" in Judd Apatow's film "Funny People": "If you put 'cute kitten' in the title of your YouTube video, you're gonna get a million hits."
For year, blogs have been a sure-fire way for media buyers to humanize their online ads. Blogs are innately personal to begin with, whether they're cataloguing a sleep-talker's bizarre nocturnal musings or a mother's daily battles with her baby's ear-piercing reaction to teething. In fact, the latter has become prime online real estate for advertisers who target the readers of these emotional and often hysterical blogs; cream of the Mommy Blogger crop Heather Armstrong – the mastermind and personality behind Dooce – for example, is coveted by such brands as Suave and Verizon, both of which are currently running custom content campaigns on her site.
Verizon's campaign in particular effectively leverages the authenticity of Dooce.com and its beloved author. The brand is the official sponsor of Heather's office remodel (or "Headquarters Reinvention," as it's officially touted in Verizon's display ads), even going so far as to supply some of the phone equipment that helps to keep the Dooce staff connected. For this it is thanked on the blog, which invites readers to "learn more about how Verizon helps keep you connected" – a seamless and perfectly acceptable display of blurring the lines between editorial and advertising.
As a part of its media buy, Verizon is affiliated with virtually every blog post and video relating to office furniture, networking solutions, and storage ideas – which means it's also tied to Heather's excitement about the changes, and her readers' excitement about her daily life. A recent video of Heather discussing the progress of the project ended with a treat for her loyal fans: a brief but impossibly cute clip of her baby's first steps. Verizon isn't likely to find a much more human publishing partner than this one (the blog is represented by Federated Media Publishing).
Search, too, has come to have a more human touch through services like ChaCha, which was first introduced in 2007 as a search engine that eschewed automated spiders for thousands of actual human guides tasked with delivering the user's results. ChaCha has since found its niche in the mobile search and text search arena, and last week announced a marketing partnership with NBC Universal Digital Studio designed to promote its new comedy Webseries, "FCU: Fact Checkers Unit."
The branded entertainment series follows two fact checkers working at a magazine. Viewers of the weekly episodes can interact with the program and immerse themselves in the fictional lives of its characters by becoming fact checkers themselves and texting ChaCha through the show's website. The results come straight from ChaCha's 50,000 guides, along with a promise to be the user's "mobile BFF" and a heads-up that responses include advertising.
ChaCha's mobile ads, which are always preceded by an asterisk in order to delineate between results and paid text, have proven particularly popular among marketers working to reach teens and young adults. Over 80 percent of the questions directed to the service come from consumers aged 13 to 24 – the desirable "mobile generation" that advertisers can find connecting with to be a challenge. The tone of the answers one receives from ChaCha guides is informal and comfortable – indeed, very much like the experience of texting with a friend. With a human-driven search engine like this one, brands can further engage audiences, as NBC Universal has done. But they can also align themselves with a relatable and enjoyable service that has at its heart a personal point of view.
Where is this more human side of the Internet heading? One path seems to lead back to online social clubs and networks, some of which have begun adopting a membership policy so exclusive would-be users must sign up to join in person. Now that's digital media with a human touch.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.
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