Travel site says cheap production costs - combined with overall impressions and positive blog chatter - have made the effort a big ROI win.
Travelocity's "Roaming Gnome" mascot made headlines on April 1 when it began appearing on Chatroulette, the five-month-old site best known for nude and lewd behavior by some of its users. Now, 40 days into the effort, the travel brand told ClickZ that the initiative has resulted in 350,000 impressions and 400 conversations between potential customers and its chat specialists.
"We've been really happy with the way [the gnome] has been received and how the chat conversations have gone," said Joel Frey, spokesperson for the Southlake, TX-based company. "The gnome is kind of a perfect character for social media because he's non-threatening and conversational. We have had a lot of fun with the gnome on Facebook and Twitter, and Chatroulette is just a natural extension of those things."
A lot of Travelocity's enthusiasm for the effort lies in its low cost. The budget line items were a video recorder, a tripod, and paying a staffer to chat with people. But what about interacting in a video chat forum that has become known as an online haven for real-time, X-rated conduct?
Frey said the marketing play is not as risky as it may initially appear because it's only a two-way interaction - between Travelocity's chatter and the Chatroulette user on the other end. In other words, if the Travelocity chatter comes in visual contact with some unsavory activity, the rest of the world will never know.
"If we do run into somebody that we don't want to talk to, we just hit the 'Next' button and move on to the next conversation," he said. "That's helped us answer the question about whether we wanted to be associated with a medium known for people hanging around in their birthday suits... And, we think over time Chatroulette could get past the reputation it has for being a seedy place."
Travelocity's agency of record, McKinney, invented the gnome character in 2003 and also thought up the Chatroulette play. The agency executes the project at its Durham, NC-based offices (see image to the right). On the video chat site, the gnome is usually seen holding a sign, which communicates - in handwritten magic marker - where the mascot is located at that moment on his fictitious travels. Dedicated Facebook and Twitter accounts for the gnome also reflect where he is supposed to be.
"We don't want his sign to say he's in Las Vegas, if his Facebook page says he's in Aspen," said Janet Northern, spokesperson for McKinney. "When there cannot be somebody there to chat at 3 o'clock in the morning, we make sure there's a really cool sign up."
During those off-hours with no chat specialist present, the video camera continues to roll and indeed relies on the signs to interact with viewers.
The signs often playfully suggest that traveling is a better use of time than Chatroulette. Two recent examples: "Traveling from person to person doesn't count. Travelocity.com." And, "Awesome Things: 1.) Tahoe this weekend. 2.) Traveling instead of chatting. Travelocity.com."
Frey added, "The initial thought was, 'Here's a captive audience that may be in need of a trip. So it could be a good way to get them thinking about booking their next adventure that they want to take on their own.'"
Meanwhile, Travelocity has seemingly benefitted from a groundswell of general buzz around Chatroulette in recent months. According to the most recent comScore data, Chatroulette.com went from a few hundred thousand unique visitors in January to more than 4 million in February.
"We've gotten a lot of positive buzz from this that we really weren't at all expecting," Frey said. "The PR alone has totally captured the ROI... And our hope is that as Chatroulette continues to grow, we'll sort of get that halo effect for being an early adapter."
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Christopher Heine was a senior writer for ClickZ through June 2012. He covered social media, sports/entertainment marketing, retail, and more. Heine's work has also appeared via Mashable, Brandweek, DM News, MarketingSherpa, and other tech- and ad-centric publications. USA Today, Bloomberg Radio, and The Los Angeles Times have cited him as an expert journalist.
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