A Pheromone-Laced Scent for Social-Media Set Isn't Mad Science

But Experimenting on Your Audience Might Be

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Home-cryonics experiments. Psychic window-washers. Hotel-soap collections. Payphone condoms. Freeze-dried pets. Accidental anti-tank assaults on Virginia gas stations. Burglars caught sleeping in the house they are burglarizing. Hunger strikes for venture capital. Worm ranchers.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen it all.

Perhaps you are unaware, but for 15 years of my career, in addition to my other pursuits as a fabled multimediocrity, I was NPR's roving bizarro correspondent, spanning the globe for the weird and quixotic. Which is just to say: I know my stupid. So imagine my delight to receive a press release headlined thusly:

Delicious, eh? A fragrance for those whose relationships are, by definition, cultivated online. And, by the way, further investigation reveals that the precise targets are the habitues of special-interest forums devoted to tech, video-gaming, paintball and other realms of the socially undeveloped. Hmm. Where are they going to wear this sexual attractant? Comic-Con? Mom's basement? Is it a floral, a spice, a musk? What, pray tell, is the smell of a loser?

"To me, the smell of the geek is very much the smell of a heated up circuit board and Red Bull," says Sanjay Sabnani, 41, the CEO of CrowdGather. Nonetheless, he says the irresistible Erox is an understated botanical body spray -- sort of Axe not on steroids, but on pheromones derived from sea coral. (If you are perhaps rightfully worried about the virginity of gamers, at least fear not for the barrier reefs. The compound is synthesized.)

But wait. Leave us not lose ourselves in the minutiae of pheromone science (which Sabnani says is supported by at least one double-blind study), nor in the manifest ridiculousness of the concept. Because it turns out that the arrested adolescent at the heart of this venture is not really the fanboys haunting online forums. It is the online forum itself.

CrowdGather is a 3-year-old acquirer of these proto social networks, highly vertical communities of intensely devoted fans of ... whatever. Sabnani's plan is to roll up enough page views and uniques -- 155 million/15 million monthly so far -- to focus the attention of Madison Avenue on his universe of intense loyalists. As of now, the forums subsist on revenues from ad networks and Google AdSense, yielding CPMs often south of $1.

As more and more mainstream ad dollars pour into social media, Sabnani poignantly observes, the beneficiaries have mainly been Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, FourSquare etc. "We are the et cetera. Forums have been around so long people have forgotten about them." Some of that may have to do with novelty, but mainly it has to do with scale. The audience of PB Nation, the paintballers, may be devoted, but it isn't vast. "We can't make the niche community bigger," Sabnani says. "So we are basically bundling together the vertical channels." By October, if all goes well, the critical mass will enable CrowdGather to bypass ad networks altogether.

Fair enough, but perhaps you are now wondering what this business plan has to do with scented aphrodisiacs for the deeply maladjusted. Perhaps you are wondering why Sabnani would issue a press release destined to generate headlines such as this one on the media-news website Mediaite:

This Exists: 'Social Media Fragrance' Oddly Does Not Smell of Cheeto Dust and Tears
The explanation: serendipity. Several factors converged to make Erox not merely a notion, but a divine path -- a path along which the voice of God whispers, "Sex sells." First there was the aforementioned surge of marketing dollars to the social space. Second was a PostRelease white paper singling out forums (look I know it's strictly speaking fora, but I'm surrendering to popular error) as "the hidden gems of the social web" populated with "highly influential word-of -mouthers -- that elusive group of enthusiastic consumers every company would love to find and enlist." Third was his longstanding friendship and occasional partnership with the founder of Human Pheromone Sciences.

And then, above all, was the crippling horniness of the 70% male CrowdGather crowd.

"Our network is a sausage fest," Sabnani says. "There's always conversations about picking up on the opposite sex."

In short, the universe demanded that he experiment on these human guinea pigs -- not just to see if certain organic compounds found in coral will get a video-gamer lucky, but to see if his cobbled-together ad medium is as sexy as he believes. For that answer, you'll have to check back in the fall. At the moment, Sabnani is busy finalizing the scent, the packaging and the description to appear on the bottle below the brand name Erox.

"I like the Axe approach," he says. "Very tongue-in-cheek." Hence his leading candidate: "Eau de Geek."

Eau, the humanity. Even nerds have feelings. As I said, I know my stupid; insulting the customer is not the ideal way to generate social buzz, and how unfortunate it would be if the Axe fell on his ad campaign at point of contact. Not only would Sabnani fail to demonstrate the reach of his forum network, but, more tragically, so many tongues would be doomed to reside only and forever in their own lonely cheeks.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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