Over 41 million people (40 percent of Internet users) use it at home. Almost 13 million people use it at work (nearly 31 percent of the work population), spending 45 percent more time on it than at home. Approximately 63 percent of all Internet users are regular participants. Usage is evenly divided between broadband and modem users. Overall, usage is skyrocketing, jumping 110 percent in a single year. It’s big stuff. And most marketers haven’t yet discovered it (though many probably use it all the time).
What is it? Instant messaging.
Yup, IM, that ubiquitous desktop feature that helps us keep in touch with our friends all over the world with a couple of keystrokes. Faster than email, more suitable for quickie messages, always on, IM is still relatively commercial free. And for good reason. Nobody’s really figured out how to market with it. Until now.
Sure, sure, sure… banner ads have been running on IM clients for year. Even though those marketing messages have (possibly) paid for the infrastructure required to run these services, few companies have figured out how to tap these instantaneous communications capabilities to build brands, provide customer service, or fulfill other marketing functions.
There’s probably a good reason. IM isn’t email. It is a relatively synchronous, engaging activity between two people. It isn’t a “broadcast” medium. It feels a lot more personal than email. Although all of us have become inured to spam (though maybe not… check out this article), most IM users would fly off the handle if salespeople started interrupting them with sales pitches. Just as we avoid cell phone telemarketing (even if it were legal), most marketers have had the intuitive sense to avoid IM spamming.
Of course, reasons for that may not be entirely altruistic. Many marketing folks can’t even imagine how to use this new medium. Email’s easy. It’s basically like totally measurable snail mail. Banners (regardless of the format) are like buying space anywhere else. Sponsorships are a little tougher but have analogues in the traditional world. IM? That’s a whole other ball o’ virtual wax.
IM is inherently interactive. It requires a full-time call-and-response model. The prospect contacts you first, then you have to respond to her questions. Sure, this is relatively easy (if resource-heavy) in a customer service context, but how can this be done when trying to build brand (without having to hire thousands of “spokespeople”)?
Bots, of course!
If you haven’t been up on artificial intelligence tech, bots (technically “chatbots”) are basically programs designed to take questions from users, parse out the meaning, query a database, and feed back a natural-sounding answer. Bots have existed in a variety of formats for years (on Internet Relay Chat, in standalone clients, and in Web-based Q&A engines), but they have rarely been harnessed for advertising, mainly because of time, talent, and cost involved with creating the things. There have been some experiments with technologies, such as Alicebot, but nobody’s been successful combining bots with IM technology for marketing purposes.
ActiveBuddy’s mission in life has been to develop intelligent agents to be used in marketing. It’s done pretty well. Though its SmarterChild tech runs in a typical Web browser, it is the company’s IM clients that really show how IM and marketing can come together.
Creating interactive “agents” for brands such as Austin Powers, BBCi, Reuters, and eBay, ActiveBuddy has melded the interactivity and immediacy of IM with brand-building information that keeps users glued to their IM clients. Log on to its Austin Powers bot with your AIM client, and you’re soon swapping shagadelic stories with Mr. Powers himself (or a reasonable cyber-facsimile). Want up-to-the-minute news? Agent Reuters can give you what you’re looking for. Wonder why you shouldn’t smoke? Chat with VaVaVirgil on your AIM client and discover all sorts of facts about smoking and how to quit (along with your horoscope, local weather, and movie listings).
Does this stuff actually work? Apparently it does. Recently ELLEgirl Magazine launched its own ELLEgirlBuddy, an ActiveBuddy bot that thinks it’s a hip 16-year-old girl living in San Francisco. Ask her for fashion tips, and she’ll point you to the latest styles from all over the world. Wondering what makeup will work for you? She’s got the scoop. Just IM her using AIM or ICQ and unleash the teen girl within.
Results from ELLEgirlBuddy have been pretty amazing. InstantMessagingPlanet just published an in-depth case study. If you’re itching for the skinny, here are the highlights from the article:
- Over 50 million messages to ELLEgirlBuddy
- Almost 1 million unique visitors to the Web site, 58 percent of whom are repeat visitors
- Almost 4 million sessions averaging over 7 minutes to the Web site
Most astoundingly (and something that should make the marketers in all of us prick up our ears), sponsoring advertisers achieved click-through rates from 10 to 13 percent! When’s the last time one of your campaigns pulled that?
How can you start to use IM in your marketing? ActiveBuddy is currently beta testing for its developer tools but should have a release available soon. In the meantime, ActiveBuddy develops custom agents for clients.
What’s the future hold for IM marketing? At this point nobody knows, but these early experiments show there is a definite, practical application for this new channel. Can it be better? Sure. Sometimes ELLEgirl’s responses make her seem like your slightly dim 16-year-old friend who never got your jokes. But the back end of the technology and the ability to create interactive experiences with virtual spokespeople (even the King himself) has huge applications for the future as the Net becomes more cluttered and the ad landscape more crowded.
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