In May, Heidi Aberi pulled together 35 friends for a party. The group was too large to fit in her house, so she decorated the gym of the Rochester, N.Y., school where she works as a physical-education teacher with streamers and balloons, supplied healthful snacks and blasted energetic music. The occasion? A DVD release from Turbo Jam, a kind of Jazzercise-meets-Tae Bo fitness regimen.
But you couldn't buy the DVD at the party. Ms. Aberi, who teaches Turbo Jam classes evenings and on weekends at a local health club, said she threw it because she loved the regimen. The event ended up costing a couple hundred dollars, she estimates, but quickly added, "it was something I believed in, so I didn't mind."
Convert fans to brand ambassadors
Marketers don't mind so much, either. Instead of a company rep wrangling a party host to invite her friends over for white zin and a hard sell, this new kind of in-home event relies on marketers' biggest fans to become brand ambassadors.
The fuel for Ms. Aberi's gathering came from a young company called House Party, which is trying to connect brands with their best evangelists. Launched in 2004 by former Jupiter Communications CEO Gene DeRose and youth-media and -marketing veteran Parker Reilly, the idea encompasses several core marketing 2.0 philosophies. It's social. It relies on a brand's most passionate consumers to become word-of-mouth marketers. And it tries to create viral buzz online.
"Tupperware hosts were mercenaries for the company, but in the world of web 2.0 social media, there's a different kind of contraband out there: free stuff, access to exclusive content and the healthy narcissistic pride to show people the things you love," said Mr. DeRose.
This month: TiVo parties. On Sept. 16, there's a party to launch a children's game based on the TV show "Fear Factor." And on Oct. 14, a Tassimo party, "offered only to hosts who love the Tassimo Hot Beverage System, and features gifts and offers not available elsewhere," reads the invitation. Gevalia, a Kraft-owned home coffee service, has a party scheduled for Sept. 29.
The backbone of the events is a network of social web tools -- blogs, photo sharing, message boards and online invites and RSVP tools -- that are meant to fuel viral buzz around the parties and the brands.
Sarah Meltzer, consumer marketing manager for RC2, is using House Party to promote its board game based on the "Fear Factor" TV show and said regular check-ins on the party site show moms blogging about what kind of food they're going to prepare (frosted "eyeballs" will be huge), how they're decorating their homes and uploading pictures. RC2 is also using the site as a market-research tool. Pre- and post-party surveys ask: "What do you like about 'Fear Factor?' What do and don't you like about the game?"
The next move for House Party, which just received a $1 million injection of financing, is to add partners that would be packaged in with the branded parties-a snack-food company offering products at a House Party for a TV premiere, for example.
Promotion-friendly RSVP site
In the next couple weeks the company will unveil a public site where users can manage invites and RSVPs, as well as post and share media and ideas. One mission of that site is offering a series of brand promotions that make sense for the event. Maybe it's a CD sampler of new music from Sony BMG for a wine-and-cheese party -- or a 2-for-1 Domino's Pizza offer for the World Series-watching party.
Which leads to the question of how many branded bashes can consumers take beyond Mary Kay, Party-Lite candles and the rest of the $8.5 billion home-party business.
And that, said Mr. DeRose, is the challenge. "We really want it to be lifestyle immersion more than schlocky marketplace," he said. "Our tightrope is to keep it real. It has to be something I would want in my home, in my party."