Salon.com Uses Top Chef ‘Virtual Party’ to Promote Food Section

Newly relaunched Salon.com was the sole sponsor of Bravo’s “virtual viewing party” for the season finale of Top Chef last night. It used the occasion to promote its new food section.

The “party” took place on BravoTV.com, where visitors could view aggregated tweets about the show, including those from judges and contestants on the series. Viewers could also participate through Facebook Connect or mobile chat.

Salon’s branding wasn’t exactly in your face: Two banner ads were visible, one across the top of the page and one to the right. They were, however, the only advertising on the page, and they were on-topic, promoting a site dedicated to food writing to an audience of dedicated foodies.

“We’re pretty sure a lot of tonight’s viewers would also love the site,” wrote Salon.com CEO Richard Gingras in an e-mail message. The new Salon section is edited by former Gourmet writer Francis Lam.

Gringras led a relaunch of Salon.com last month that included a new look, new advertising inventory and new sections, like a food section and an e-commerce store. It was the 15-year-old site’s latest attempt to finally turn a profit, or at least stop losing so much money.

For Bravo, the heavily promoted event was its second attempt at a “virtual viewing party.” The first was held for the season finale of The Real Housewives of New York in May.

The idea, said Bravo Digital Media SVP Lisa Hsia, was to create “a real-time water cooler experience.” In addition to being able to tweet from the page and read tweets of others, participants could use their cell phones to text answers to poll question asked by Bravo. For example, “Do you think it’s fair the contestants were asked to make desert?”

Hsia said last night’s party put into effect some lessons learned from the previous one.

“The first time we did it, the Twitter responses were going in so fast — we hadn’t built a break into the system — [that] you couldn’t read them,” she said. Last night, the problem seemed to have been fixed.

“Social media and integrating advertising in terms of user experience is really virgin territory, and we’re finding out along with our partners” what works best, she said. “We’re wading into this in terms of advertising to see how people react.”

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