Forget the Presidential Election, Teens Are Getting Out the Vote

Demo Embraces Wishbone App For Voting on Hairstyles, Celebs -- And Brands

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Taco Bell app
Taco Bell app

A new and popular tap-to-vote app is making it easy for teens to voice their opinions, and marketers are starting to take notice.

The app, called Wishbone, has built an audience of more than 4 million users in less than a year, attracting a core user base of girls ages 13-to-18. The app appeals to their demand for quick and satisfying content with a simple visual "this or that" format where they create polls and vote on preferences with instant community results.

While questions tend to reflect the pop culture concerns of the group – celebrity polls like "Jelena or Jailey?" and "Kim or Khloe?" are popular along with clothing, hair and make-up polls – there are many comparisons that specifically call out brands. It doesn't take much scrolling to find "Patagonia or Vineyard Vines?" clothing queries or "Monster or Rockstar?" energy drink polls.

Brands such as Victoria's Secret Pink and Sephora and films including "The Fifth Wave" have authorized accounts – verified by Wishbone parent Science Inc. – but other brands are going beyond content plays on a hip platform and exploring other marketing uses.

Hearst has been using Wishbone for about a month for its Seventeen brand and already clocks 1 million visitors daily. Most of its polls, or "cards" as Wishbone call them, average half a million votes each, said Donna Kalajian Lagani, senior VP-publishing director and chief revenue officer for Seventeen and Cosmo.

That's great for brand building, audience engagement and snapshot opinion polling, she said, but the publisher is looking beyond that to figure out what it can do for its advertisers.

In a modern product placement scenario, Ms. Lagani sees the possibility of featuring advertiser brands on Seventeen and Cosmo's Wishbone cards as another part of the media mix it can offer clients. A hair brand, for example, could be featured around prom time asking users to vote between two hairstyles.

Votes on those images can help a brand determine which product or style plays better with its young female audience, but can also work to push the audience to product websites. Wishbone uses non-skippable interstitial video ads after a certain number of cards are scrolled as part of its revenue model. In this example, the hair brand clickable ad would be placed directly following the cards to drive traffic to the product's site, Ms. Lagani noted.

Video ads on Wishbone can be up to 30-seconds long, but tend to more often run about six seconds, said Benoir Vatere, general manager of Science mobile and head of brand development. Right now most ads are served through the AdColony network; a recent sample included several gaming apps. Tje videoes are interspersed within the polls.

Another publisher, Tiger Beat, knows from its website that the polling format is particularly appealing to this demographic, said its head of marketing Samantha Barton. Tiger Beat joined Wishbone in November and along with original daily card content, the teen publisher has used it to cover live events, including a cover shoot for teen actress/singer Laura Marano and during the Nickelodeon Teen Choice Awards with #TBNKCA polls.

The cards offered behind-the-scenes looks at two outfits or make-up styles or celebrity date choices. Users who weighed in on their favorites got the behind-the-scenes content as well as instant poll info. In return, Tiger Beat found out what celebs, fashion, beauty products and food they're most interested in. People and Entertainment Weekly are also publisher brands using Wishbone.

Taco Bell is one of the first product brands to use Wishbone in its just-launched campaign for its revamped $1 morning breakfast menu. It used sponsored cards to tease the menu with tongue-in-cheek polls like "What's a better price for breakfast?" with photos of a $1 and a $5 bill to choose from.

The brand was keen to get on the platform as an early adopter, reflecting its target audience, said Ryan Rimsnider, senior manager-social strategy at Taco Bell.

"We position ourselves and pride ourselves on being a brand of first. We were one of the first brands on SnapChat, an early leader on Instagram," he said. "As we started to see Wishbone trend in our communities, we said, 'Wow what a great idea to get a true read on the pulse of our fans.' "

The key to getting substantial notice is inclusion in Wishbone's daily dozen, a morning and evening set of 12 cards presented to users as soon as they open the app. Cards get into those valuable slots by either being chosen by Wishbone curators or by paying for a sponsored card (Wishbone would not discuss pricing). Taco Bell, as part of its launch campaign, bought into the daily dozen with sponsored cards that went on to garner hundreds of thousand votes. Mr. Jones said weekday daily dozen cards average around 100,000 votes, while weekend daily dozen cards get at least 250,000 votes. Compare that to the typical user-generated cards with just few hundreds or low thousands of votes.

Wishbone parent Science is led by CEO Michael Jones, formerly the CEO of MySpace and a longtime digital entrepreneur and investor. The company has only begun to explore branded partnerships, he said, with most brands so far coming to Wishbone with ideas. However, more formal plans are in the works.

In the beginning, Wishbone helped marketers get a read of how its brand already plays on the app by culling some 250,000 public cards created a day for mentions of that brand, Mr. Jones said.

"Now marketers want to enable content creation and talk to this audience about things that are coming up … new products they want to launch or new campaigns or to gauge the feelings about certain celebrities. They want to create a clever piece of content, cards, that can be used to reach and understand the mindset of this teenage audience," he said.

Along with selling video ads and sponsored cards (Wishbone does not generally charge publishers, who provide it with free content), Wishbone also makes money on search. Brands can buy search terms like "lipstick" or "sneakers" and have their specific make-up and footwear images served at the top of the list for teens to use in their polls. Personal selfies are sometimes used in polls, but not often and are not encouraged, Mr. Jones said.

The market for in-app ad placements like Wishbone is expected to total $30 billion this year, according to eMarketer data; that's more than doubled from just $13.7 billion in 2014.

However, teens of course are notoriously fickle. Even Wishbone acknowledges it doesn't want to be the fad app of the year and is working on ways to evolve its strategy with video and other new types of content or set-ups to continue engaging the group.

The "Hot or Not" type polling model has been used before, maybe most famously by Facebook predecessor Facemash. Millennial insights researcher Ypulse had polling app similar to Wishbone called Thumb, but shut it down in 2015.

Does that also mean a tough go for Wishbone.? Maybe. March data from Ypulse's monthly survey found teens really don't like in-app advertising. While 76% of 13-to-34-year-olds overall dislike in-app advertising, a whopping 96% of teens ages 18 and younger say they try to ignore or avoid it.

"While teens are not fans of advertising in any format, they particularly dislike advertising that is intrusive or gets in the way of their mobile experiences. Case in point: 41% of U.S. teens currently use an ad blocker," said Dan Coates, president of YPulse. "Apps like Wishbone are smart to innovate with native advertising because of how teens feel about the current state of mobile in-app ads."

Product placement works better with teens and Mr. Coates noted that when it is done well, it's "a highly effective way of generating awareness and influencing teens, particularly when placed in the hands of those that they trust, respect, admire or follow."