A new take on the social networking phenomenon hopes to create online communities around specific brands. Outburst, a new marketing unit from digital media and tech firm POPstick, aims to leverage consumers’ natural affinity for brands and allow marketers to communicate with those fans.
Agency veteran Steve Dworin has signed on as president of the business unit. Dworin was formerly vice chairman of EURO RSCG. He earlier led NW Ayer as CEO, and Deutsch/Dworin as president.
POPstick describes its new service as “social network marketing.” It offers an online dashboard through which brand loyalists can meet and share their enthusiasm for a given product or service. As with social networking services like Friendster, Orkut and LinkedIn, Outburst lets users create personalized profiles through which they interact with others. The new company has not yet announced any clients.
Outburst’s platform uses technology POPstick developed for clients Microsoft, Dell and IBM. The core is a dashboard. Its components include a blog, discussion threads, small uploaded videos and interactive maps users can use to find brand-related events in their area. These can be facilitated or sponsored by marketers, POPstick says. Network content is provided by members, “subject matter experts,” and sponsoring vendors.
“The fact that it hasn’t been done much before is a surprise to me, and I think there’s an opportunity marketers are missing,” he said. “There are so many groups where people are talking about brands and services, and the marketer has nothing to do with it.”
It’s by no means certain that brand marketers can replicate the rapid viral growth and sense of community achieved by some existing social networks. Some networks have worked hard to create business models built on their popularity. Friendster recently partnered with Dreamworks to promote the movie “Anchorman” by setting up profiles of the film’s characters on its network, and launched a similar effort for NBC’s reality show “The Apprentice.” Yet overall, advertisers have been slow to buy media or invest in social networks.
Part of the challenge is consumers’ natural suspicion toward marketing materials, even from brands they trust. Dworin acknowledges that participating brands would have to approach such an endeavor with a light touch. “It will be brand oriented, but it can’t be too heavily brand-driven or it will be perceived as too commercial,” he observed.
He added Outburst wouldn’t take on clients whose brands don’t already have built-in potential for consumer affinity.
“There are many groups out there that have been formed by individuals,” he said. “The brand itself is not the center of it, or sponsor of it. We see an opportunity for brands that already have communities to be at the center of the community and direct it.”
Outburst will use a variety of sources to launch viral communities for its clients. Dworin suggested Proctor & Gamble’s Tremor unit, which has reportedly assembled a panel of 200,000 teen influencers, as a possible starting point.
Incentives will also play a role. “Members will each receive a status in the community. The more members they bring in, the higher status they receive.”
In addition to interacting with their self-created networks of fans and influencers, Outburst’s clients will be able to conduct consumer research among members in their networks.
“We will report data on what’s going on in the community,” Dworin said. “Here’s an opportunity for a marketer to get instantaneous feedback on what’s happening with consumers.”
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