Brittany, and hundreds of teens like her, are the behind-the-scenes "sales" teams for M80. M80 is one of a growing group of promotion specialists using the Internet to build grassroots support for entertainment properties ranging from music to movies, cellular service and apparel. Brittany doesn't get paid, but she receives perks such as free T-shirts and CDs for her role in hyping the nation's current top-selling record, 'N Sync's "No Strings Attached" from BMG Entertainment.
The concept is pretty simple. Entertainment marketers recruit youthful fans, then ply them with photos, background info and banner ads. They then leave it to the fans to spread the word--via fan site postings and e-mails--to like-minded teens, with e-mail lists sometimes supplied by the marketing agency.
INTERNET STREET MARKETING
This Net version of "street marketing" is something music labels have been using for years, especially for below-the-radar acts that need underground buzz. It's the natural extension of music companies' long utilized ploy of passing out free CDs, T-shirts and merchandise to potential fans at clubs and other gatherings.
"[Fans] want these artists to succeed," said Mark Schiller, president and co-founder of ElectricArtists, New York, an Internet entertainment marketing company. "They do it for passion. We offer them information. They don't want offers or 20% discounts on stuff. . . . They want to be involved."
Music marketers have used these Internet promo tactics to transform unknowns into stars, as ElectricArtists did last year with soulful singer Christina Aguilera. Now their turf is expanding as ElectricArtists, M80 and others turn to bigger entertainment properties, particularly theatrical film releases.
ElectricArtists is working on a major summer effort, "The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps," starring Eddie Murphy, a sequel to 1996's "The Nutty Professor." And M80 is behind the scenes of a Net pitch for Miramax Films' "Human Traffic," a movie about the club scene, following its recent work promoting Sony Pictures Entertainment's "Black & White," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Brooke Shields.
The first "Nutty Professor" vehicle for Mr. Murphy was a box office success, pulling in $128.8 million in U.S. revenue. Because of the film's high awareness level, marketing the sequel requires a different approach.
"You look for things within that would be hip and cool," Mr. Schiller said. "It may be outtakes of a film or samples of the sound track. You then go to [Internet] communities. It could be an Eddie Murphy [area]; it could be around comedy; it could be around urban music."
Online street marketing gives movie marketers access to another demographic segment as they try to reach a broad audience.
"A street approach to an urban audience, coupled with a music approach to a [young] demographic and a broad [marketing] approach, add up to a giant destination," said Mark Shmuger, president of theatrical marketing for Universal Pictures.
Similarly, Sony executives found Internet marketing a good fit for "Black & White," which is about a group of white teens and their obsession with the hip-hop music scene. For this movie, M80 recruited 27 "team" members by targeting fan sites of hip-hop artists such as Wu-Tang Clan and Method Man--who appear in the movie--as well as other celebrities in the film.
Films, however, are just one of an expanding array of products embracing grassroots Net marketing for a competitive edge. Recent ElectricArtists clients include Tommy Hilfiger's Tommy Shops mall kiosks, cellular provider Air Touch, Rolling Stone, Stuff and YM.
This type of Net marketing isn't without risk, however. Its practitioners walk a fine line with college students, who often are averse to becoming a traditional marketing targets.
"The whole concept of the Net is that if it's commercial, it might not be cool," said Justine Lassoff, VP-marketing for FirstLook.com, who has used Internet marketing companies for her music and video preview Web site.
Moreover, there's the issue of accountability. Entertainment companies usually pay grassroots Net marketers a monthly retainer of $10,000 to $70,000 for campaigns that can last from one to three months. What do clients get in return? "We send back a big, phone-book size report--URLs, e-mail addresses and sample postings," said Dave Neupert, M80 president.
That documentation, however, doesn't measure sales.
"It's impossible to measure the value of [grassroots Net efforts]," Ms. Lassoff said. But clients believe it pays off in the long run.
"Online seeding is really important, especially when you have so many different Web sites," said Chris Stephenson, senior VP-marketing for House of Blues Digital, which has worked with several Internet marketers to tout HOB's live concert cybercasts. "You need a lot of people to seed well."
Usually the pitch signing up "street teams" starts in a very conversational tone. Here's one from ElectricArtists, concerning a Lions Gate Films documentary film release:
"Hey, everyone. The first ever movie about the life inside of pro wrestling is about to be released. It's called `Beyond the Mat.' We are putting together a team of die-hard wrestling fans. By joining the team, you'll be eligible to win a `Beyond the Mat' poster and tickets to the premiere."
Team members send out postings and e-mails to grab attention--in their own words--avoiding marketingspeak. "Kids can smell a rat in five minutes," Mr. Schiller said. "We don't script anything. The kids write."
Here is a sample from Holly, who posted a message to an unofficial fan site of the boy group Matchbox 20. Holly is promoting a new artist, Angie Aparo, who has a style similar to Matchbox 20:
"Great site!!! Definitely add me to your list! Since we are all MB20 fans and seem to enjoy the same type of music, I am writing to ask if you would check out a new artist: ANGIE APARO. He is from Atlanta and has his debut album, THE AMERICAN, coming out on the Arista/Melisma label on March 7th.
"Please visit the Web site at www.angieaparo.com and you can download MP3 on your way in so that you can listen to his amazing sound. Thanks for checking him out--please let me know what you think!!"
But using real teens raises questions whether Internet marketers deceive any of their targeted consumers--or street team marketers--by creating faux buzz for a particular artist or movie. Internet marketing agencies say kids are savvy.
`UPFRONT ABOUT WHO WE ARE'
"We are very upfront [about] who we are," said Troy Rutman, director of business development and client relations at ElectricArtists. "We are careful how we position ourselves."
Recent laws, however, might change some of the efforts for Internet marketers, especially for those teen Web sites that sell e-mail lists to Internet entertainment marketing agencies. Under the new Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, Web sites are required to get parental consent when underage children are involved (AA, April 17).
"If in fact they are selling information to third parties on a Web site that is targeted to kids under 13, then they have to get parental approval," said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Washington-based Center for Media Education.
"Where the marketing and content are mixed up and there is a lot of potential for deception, we need to look more at this."
Since the new law became effective last month, Mr. Neupert said he puts a disclaimer on any e-mail that's sent out by M80, such as, "If you are under 13, don't open this e-mail without your parents' approval."
And rarely does someone reject these mailings, he said because virtually 100% of those contacted placed their e-mail addresses on Web sites looking for additional information for a specific musical act or film.
`A PROACTIVE COMMUNITY'
"You are dealing with proactive communities," Mr. Neupert said. "The proactive fan can't keep up with everything. There is so much entertainment stuff out there. They are thankful we are there."
Internet marketers also like to point out that their street teams do a lot of their own creative marketing work--fans talking to fans in their own language. The risk is that mistakes can be made when it comes to postings, e-mails and chat room discussions.
"You are working with college kids or interns, who may or may not be saying the right things about your company," said FirstLook's Ms. Lassoff.
"If you have real fans marketing, it's going to keep the integrity intact," Mr. Neupert said. "We pick special kids, say 100 or so. You could do thousands, but it's not effective. You don't have control."
This isn't a perfect science, nor does it need to be. Mr. Schiller said errors are part of the process, part of the reason why this viral form of Internet marketing works.
"If there are mistakes, that's alright," he said. "It's got to be credible; it's got to be real."
And communications such as Brittany's make it so.
"I really like the team. It's pretty coolio, a lot of hard work, but it's cool," she wrote in her e-mail to ElectricArtists. "You get to meet a lot of people who like *NSYNC just as much as you do if not more and get to find out stuff earlier than most people."