E-Marketing Gets Physical

Last week, I attended the American Film Institute’s (AFI’s) Digital Content Festival in Los Angeles. Keynote Todd Wagner of 2929 Entertainment led off with an insightful look at issues of control, consumer preference, and Hollywood. Appearing in a leg cast (which he attributed to having been roughed up by a couple of movie execs), Wagner essentially made a case for why less control is actually better for business. His central point was simply “let consumers decide.” They know what they want. If you give it to them, they’ll happily buy it. Repeatedly.

Equally notable was Current TV‘s Joanna Drake Earl. Earl presented Current’s online toolset and a new online site for content creators:. Current gets about a third of its programming, called Viewer Created Content, directly from viewers. They watch it. They vote on it. Current posts the “best of.” It’s developed a content channel that goes beyond watching; it’s about creating and sharing the experience. I’ve been a Current TV fan for the past year and encourage marketers to take a look at it. It’s definitely part of what’s next.

Another trio of presenters covered a series of new online marketing and promotional efforts. Included in the session were Starz’ Vongo movie service, a recap of the highly integrated campaign from Sony for “Nacho Libre,” and a really cool new product from Apple and Nike called the Nike + iPod Sport Kit. Not that I’m a big runner, but if I were I’d definitely buy this. (I wonder if they make one for road racing.) The Sport Kit is a transmitter that fits into specific Nike running shoes and stores details of your running session. I guess you’ll have to buy the shoes, too… those slick marketers!

Of course, if that’s all the Sport Kit did, I probably wouldn’t write about it. The Sport Kit also communicates with your iPod Nano while you run. As you start to hit that wall, you can automatically ease your iPod into some higher-energy music and push on through. And it downloads your running session when you sync your iPod so you can compare yourself with other runners. We’re talking socially aware sneakers!

What’s important is the degree to which all these products and services involve the consumer, in both the core experience and the accompanying on- and offline social marketing in support of the product. Consider Wagner and 2929 Entertainment: the value proposition is built around me deciding how and when I want to see a film. As a result, I’ll likely see more than the one new feature film I saw in a theater last year. Current TV is about me taking part in the creative process of informative storytelling. Campaigns like the Nacho Libre character parties organized by Harry Knowles in Austin, TX, help carry the online message directly into the offline domain. And true to form, Apple and Nike take it a step further: runners can actually challenge each other as they form online communities around specific runs, then carry these relationships into the physical communities that define both the sport and the runner lifestyle.

Every time someone’s content is posted on Current TV, or someone’s invited to one of Knowles’ parties, or someone makes a new connection because of the Sport Kit, she’ll talk about it. This is precisely Wagner’s point: by serving customers the way they want to be served, they’ll participate more and talk more. That talk will tend to be favorable.

Think about it. When someone who’d rather not leave the house can see a movie at home the same weekend it opens theatrically, he can confidently walk into the break room Monday morning and, perhaps for the first time, actually know what everyone else is buzzing about. That’s huge! Trust me on this… I am that guy. Talk about leveling the playing field. Innovations like this threaten to democratize coolness. Everyone can participate.

Each of these campaigns and online services connects people through a combination of on- and offline marketing and experiential events. Each generates a huge, positive feedback wave built on word of mouth that feeds off the combined efforts of smart online marketers and product designers. This wave drives the message deeper into the social communities to which the participants belong, improving ROI (define) with each successive loop.

In the end, effective e-marketing isn’t really about the “e.” It’s about the physical, and the great things that happen when solid online marketing efforts connect with and drive an actual personal experience. It’s really not about a banner or a Flash unit or a contrived MySpace campaign. It’s about how the product or service makes my physical life better and how the marketing effort, online or off-, brings that to the surface. After all, why would anyone jog? Because it’s good for us. Now, Apple and Nike are making it even better. Brilliant.

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