After collaborating on "The Passion of the Christ," two marketing firms plan to employ the same techniques in a new Christian-focused word-of-mouth network.
Ground Force Network, a joint venture between online-oriented Buzzplant, based in Nashville, Tenn., and offline-focused Strategic Marketing Solutions, based in Dallas, bears some resemblance to mainstream viral players BzzAgent and P&G's Tremor. Ground Force recruits volunteers, which it calls Field Agents, and gives them samples and incentives to spread the word about clients' projects. The difference is that Ground Force works only with Christian and family-oriented clients.
"We're unashamedly focusing on that niche," Bob Hutchins, president and owner of Buzzplant, told ClickZ News. "What the world realized after 'The Passion of the Christ' is that there's a sleeping giant here that, if mobilized properly, can be mobilized to make a major impact both financially and culturally."
Ground Force has so far collected over 1,000 names for its database of volunteers, but hopes to grow it to 3,000 by the end of March. Clients include Girls Only, a conference for teen-age girls; "Madison," a film starring "Passion" actor Jim Caviezel; The Afters, a Christian rock band; and The Makers Diet, a Bible-based holistic wellness program. Both Hutchins and Ground Force execs have ties to the Christian music industry. They expect to garner clients through those relationships.
When new Field Agents sign up, the company asks about their interests and about themselves, which allows the firm to later target emails to recruit for specific campaigns.
"We ask what their interests are, what kind of music they like, what kinds of films they watch, what they feel their gifts are," said Christine Piccione, whose title at Ground Force is "ground war leader." "Our goal is to be able to go into our database and target people who have those specific gifts and interests" that fit a client's product.
The company segments volunteers and clients in two main categories: the college market and the church market. As young people are more likely to spend time online, college market campaigns more frequently employ online marketing techniques. Church market campaigns rely more on traditional word-of-mouth methods like phoning opinion leaders such as pastors or other ministers.
Once Field Agents decide to join a campaign, they're armed with a variety of off- and online marketing collateral. Ground Force creates e-cards or viral Flash presentations people can forward to friends. SMS techniques, like creating flash mobs, are also part of Ground Force's arsenal. It provides volunteers with suggestions to employ these resources to best effect.
"We're doing this with a group of people that is ready and willing to spread the word about products they believe in," said Piccione. "It's just a matter of equipping them with the right tools."
Ground Force conducts the online measurement one would expect, tracking passalong and streaming audio listens, for example. For offline techniques, such as poster or flyer campaigns, the company uses Web site URLs and encourages volunteers to report back, so it can keep track of success metrics. Field Agents who are particularly successful receive incentives, such as a chance to win a prize or a phone call from a member of the band they promoted.
So far, blogs aren't a significant force in the Christian niche, according to Piccione and Hutchins, though they expect to work with diet bloggers to promote The Makers Diet beginning in March. One blogging-oriented trend has caught Hutchins' eye. Because Ground Force works with music industry clients, he's looking into how podcasting might be employed in Ground Force campaigns.
"This is really kind of groundbreaking for these companies and the things that they're working on. They've never really had a true grassroots campaign, say behind a teen girls conference or a book publication," said Hutchins. He suggests word-of-mouth marketing is particularly successful in this niche. "It is a tight community. People do take the word-of-mouth very seriously, especially when the gatekeepers are talking about it."
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
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