How MySpace Is Like Word-of-Mouth Marketing on Steroids

Marketing VP Shawn Gold Explains the Brand Value Behind Consumer Empowerment

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- In the white-hot cyberworld of social networking, News Corp.'s MySpace is king. Approaching 80 million members and with sign-ups at an insane pace of 2 million weekly, MySpace is getting marketers to notice. MySpace's senior VP-marketing and content, Shawn Gold, spoke with Ad Age Digital reporter Beth Snyder Bulik by phone and e-mail. Below is an edited transcript.
Shawn Gold says MySpace's biggest challenge will be to work 'with marketers to [help them] unlearn some of the traditional tenets of marketing and control of media.'
Shawn Gold says MySpace's biggest challenge will be to work 'with marketers to [help them] unlearn some of the traditional tenets of marketing and control of media.'

Ad Age Digital: You've said advertisers need to be cultural anthropologists. What did you mean by that?

Mr. Gold: There are so many places today to reach and influence consumers as they move from traditional forums to the Internet and places like MySpace. Advertisers need to figure out how to meet consumers and introduce themselves. Ask what's the most right environment and what's the most right way to communicate. And they need to understand how people receive and understand information in all those different environments.

Ad Age Digital: How is that different from traditional marketing?

Mr. Gold: Until recently, most marketing was done in segments where the advertiser reached out to consumers. But the Internet has changed that. Now [MySpace] has 72 million individuals whom advertisers are looking to catch in their stride. Advertisers should think about any medium from a sociological perspective. But the Internet is just a more complicated medium. We have communication and media combined in the same place for the first time.

Ad Age Digital: If a marketer is looking at MySpace as an advertising vehicle, what's in it for them?

Mr. Gold: Individual pages identify products. Millions of people are defining what they are there, and for young people especially, getting feedback and evolving themselves. Any criticism we get of MySpace is usually about the individual pages being unwieldy or having too much going on on them. But if you have a problem with MySpace pages, go visit a teenager's room and you'll see the same thing.

For advertisers, it's the potential for a level of intimacy that they could never have dreamed of 20 years ago. Brands are going to people and becoming their friends. Entertainment marketers get that and are there on MySpace, but any brand that operates on an entertainment platform could do the same. Nonentertainment clients [tend to] use MySpace to enhance their traditional strategy, but what's unique is we can create brand programming that fits into this platform.

Ad Age Digital: What do you mean by brand programming?

Mr. Gold: Something that offers entertainment value of a utility that brings added value to why users are there in the first place. For example, what Pepsi's Aquafina is doing in the independent film section. Aquafina had a series of filmmaker contests that showcased their work and let MySpace members vote on their favorites. In the case of the Beastie Boys, the contest was to create a music video to one of their new singles. The winners were flown to Sundance to see the premiere of the Beastie Boys movie and meet them backstage at a concert for members.

Independent film is a platform for Aquafina. ... They positioned themselves as innovators, reached tens of millions of MySpace members and built a contact database of 16,000 independent-film enthusiasts.

Ad Age Digital: How is that different from an old-school contest inviting people to write a 100-word essay about why they love a certain product?

Mr. Gold: I guess it's an evolution of that, but the communication efficiency of MySpace makes a big difference. If a product or idea takes off, we can immediately capitalize on that. We can take the idea and put the power of MySpace behind it. ... It's putting people together in a whole new way that makes media more valuable.

Ad Age Digital: What does that mean for marketers?

Mr. Gold: Brands have always been positioned by the consumers, but we offer a platform for that to happen. It's word-of-mouth on steroids. ... No one can do it to the scale we do.

Ad Age Digital: Examples of MySpace advertisers?

Mr. Gold: Honda Element, Toyota Yaris, Wendy's, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, every major movie studio and most of the big record labels.

Ad Age Digital: How many ads does MySpace currently serve every day? And how has that grown?

Mr. Gold: We serve approximately 3 billion ads a day, and that number is growing by the 2 million new members who join each week. In April, the site grew 14%.

Ad Age Digital: How do you respond to marketers' concerns about complaints of underage users, explicit content and privacy problems?

Mr. Gold: We have responded to marketers by simply sharing what we do to protect our members and eliminate content that violates our terms of service. Since its inception, MySpace has taken a lead in safety and content review.

Aside from the technology we use, we have over one-third of our staff and 25,000 volunteers reviewing content. Additionally, we allow every member of the community to report content that negatively affects the community by listing "report this image" next to every uploaded picture. MySpace reviews every image that is uploaded to the site within 24 hours and every video before it goes live.

On the safety front, we have special protections for our younger members but know that the only long-term solution is education. For that, we ask our members under 18 to agree to the basic safety tips, and we work with the top safety organizations in the country on education programs.

As far as negative press, our large advertisers are savvy marketers and have seen this kind of criticism before with the Internet and in the history of media. Like the introduction of rock 'n' roll and or even television, anytime you have a generation defining itself with something and another generation not understanding it, you have an issue that will emerge politically and in the press. Additionally, they understand that negative issues on MySpace are very small relative to the close to 80 million members.

Ad Age Digital: I've read that Wendy's International has 94,000 "friends" on MySpace? How do brands get friends?

Mr. Gold: It's based on what [Wendy's] put into the network. We offer opportunities for people to join profiles of brands. Those created profiles or branded environments extend the brand somehow.

Ad Age Digital: Really? People really want to sign up as a brand's friend?

Mr. Gold: It's all about the approach they take. Wendy's, for instance, created a likable character, a square hamburger, humanizing the brand and having over 95,000 friends at its peak. The average page is visited 30 times, so the exposure for Wendy's on a daily basis was exponential. It's quick, viral and people really like it.

Now is it for me or you or everyone? No, but it is for many. MySpace works [with advertisers] to create those profiles and environments. Our job is 70% media and 30% consulting. We do spend a lot of time helping marketers understand how to market in a social network culture. It requires experience. We protect our clients and help them understand our users. At the same time, we don't let clients do something our users won't accept.

Ad Age Digital: What do you think is MySpace's biggest marketing challenge in the coming year?

Mr. Gold: Working with marketers to [help them] unlearn some of the traditional tenets of marketing and control of media. We are in a now-and-forever world of consumer empowerment marketing where anything people read, find on TV or in a magazine is verified on the Internet.

Marketers send their positioning prompts in the marketplace, but more than ever, their brands are positioned by their users and their actual experience with the brand. ... The biggest challenge now is to help them take advantage of the efficiencies of marketing in a networked culture and the intimacy of a medium that is created by its users.

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Shawn Gold:
  • Co-founded Weblogs with pal Jason Calcanis; Weblogs later was sold to AOL.
  • Once wrote an advice column on relationships for Elle out of Paris, under the pseudonym Michael.
  • Has MySpace profile at MySpace.com/shawngold. "I have some advice stuff there," he says.
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