A Buzz Network With a Twist

Agencies doing word of mouth and buzz marketing tend to split into two camps: those working with existing networks, be they online or off, and those that roll their own.

Probably the best-known companies in the latter group are BzzAgent and Proctor & Gamble’s Tremor teen buzz marketing unit. These two regularly reach out to their enormous in-house databases of opt-in “team members,” or “agents” as the case may be, inviting them to test (and ideally spread buzz about) client products. Incentives range from point-based reward systems to free product samples to the sheer unadulterated (ok, maybe slightly adulterated) thrill of being among the first 200 people to experience a new shampoo or film trailer before it hits the marketplace.

But these aren’t the only companies operating in the space. P&G’s mom-focused VocalPoint has also received attention in this area, and of course many brands – especially youth-focused ones — cultivate their own fan bases online in hopes of activating the precious influencers among them to go out and… talk to people.

One company with a longer history but decidedly shorter reputation than Tremor and BzzAgent is StreetWise, an L.A.-based entertainment marketing outfit with a Web-driven network of 70,000 young people.

The company runs a Web site at StreetWise.com, which acts as a portal for its members to peruse and perhaps join one or more of its marketing programs, which currently include the Fiona Apple / Damien Rice tour and the Will Ferrell vehicle “Talladega Nights”. The company is helping generate buzz for no fewer than six films this summer, including the Wayans Brothers “Little Man” and “Monster House.”

When a would-be StreetWise member signs up — almost always via word of mouth as the company does no advertising or active recruiting of its own — the registration interface poses an extensive set of questions to determine his or her precise interests. These include questions about favorite bands, movies, TV shows and games.

It’s all about restricting member communications to extremely relevant and desirable content, according to Clarke De Pastino, the company’s VP of entertainment and lifestyle.

“If you’re somebody who only likes video games, I don’t want to waste your time by emailing you stuff about TV and movies,” he said. “It’s important to get that psychographic information. You don’t want to force messages on people who aren’t interested. The whole point is to seek out the people who are excited about your brand and organically spread the word. The last thing we want to do is blast out blind emails to people who don’t care.”

So far, pretty typical stuff for a word of mouth network. You tell us what you like and we’ll give you schwag in exchange for a little buzz about our clients in the category. Where things get a little more interesting is when you consider StreetWise’s unique protocol for approving client projects.

Before the company will begin to promote a film, TV show or recording artist, it sends an email to members with an expressed interest in whatever the category may be. The email includes a sneak peek at the product content, or perhaps only a summary or description of it. They then vote on whether StreetWise should even take the project.

It’s a process the company calls “Use it or Lose it.” The company requires about an 80 percent pass rate to accept a project. “If you hit 80 percent, you’re in. If you’re 70 to 80 percent, we’re going to look at the information and see who voted. If it’s under 70 percent, we pass on the project,” said De Pastino.

The strategy helps StreetWise’s reputation, he said, with both clients and members. “It’s a really high standard. It gives us credibility with our clients. It gives us a certain credibility with the people who have opted in for membership as well. We’re trying to weed out some of the bad projects before they get to them.”

Even in cases where StreetWise turns away a project, the company provides its snubbed prospects with the data it gleaned from users about why the project may have lacked appeal. In some cases, that feedback consists of hundreds of pages of detailed commentary about user’s reactions to a film trailer or campaign one-sheet.

The approach reflects the company’s long-range view of business development, with an eye toward building relationships with film, music and game studios and winning future projects.

“Use it or lose it” is also part of an overarching strategy of transparency, De Pastino said. “You don’t get emails from us saying, ‘Here’s something to blast out as many people as you can and whoever sends it to five million people wins the prize.'”

Often the campaigns start with online buzz and then expand to include an offline component in the weeks leading up to the release of a film, game or album. More often than not, the offline channel promotion involves distributing schwag to the most active team members, for instance those who have added a client’s HTML banner to their MySpace page and reached out to all their friends there.

“We’ll get a pre-set collateral of schwag, everything from t-shirts to hats to stickers that promote the film in some way,” he said. “In the three weeks prior to release, we take the top performers of that group, we’ll send them anywhere from 30 to 50 items they can share with their friends.”

In one instance, the company distributed a PDF version of a flyer for the film “Cabin Fever,” which interested team members were asked to download and post in their regular hang-outs. StreetWise then invited them to photograph the posted flyers and send in the pictures. A prize was given to those who sent the most photos.

Testifying to the spirit of fandom at the core of the business model, many of the company’s celebrity clients issue direct shout-outs to the community after their campaigns have concluded. As the time of this writing, the site’s front page has been updated to include a video recording from Cindy Margolis, winner of Celebrity Cooking Showdown, whose victory on the reality show was assisted by a buzz campaign. “Thanks StreetWise… I owe it all to you. You know I love you.”

In addition to its volunteer-driven word of mouth campaigns, StreetWise offers paid guerilla and street marketing services as well. And the company has recently expanded to do other types of digital marketing. These include a promotional site for the first season of ABC show “Lost” and youth-targeted banner and email work for Nokia. More unique deployments have included advergames and digital kiosks.

For all its forward thinking, StreetWise lacks an up-to-date Web site. Its current online presence is replete with the frames and gray tones that were hot, from a design point of view, circa 1999.

The company is preparing to upgrade the site by early next year, giving it a new look and feel plus making it easier for users to communicate with one another. Why not take the opportunity to add more advanced social networking features and try to compete with the likes of MySpace and YouTube? One reason, De Pastino said: “It would dilute what we do. The owner of our company has never entertained selling ad space on our site. It’s specifically for our clients.”

While it dallies with the identity of pseudo-publisher, StreetWise is ultimately committed to its agency model. And it tries to be as explicit as it can about its paid relationship with the advertisers who ultimately benefit from its users’ product evangelism.

“We believe young people don’t mind being marketed to, as long as you let them in on the gag,” said De Pastino. “You have to help them cut through the more boring marketing that we’re inundated with every day, help them build a more vested process.”

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