Podcasting, blogs cause major boost

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Marketing changed forever the night of February 4, 2007. That was the night that Super Bowl XLI, the most-watched advertising event of the year, featured no fewer than four ads created by ordinary consumers.

Frito-Lay's 30-second Doritos spot drew the most attention. Produced in just four days at a cost of fewer than $13, it scored second in comScore Networks' ratings of ads viewers said they'd like to see again. That spot, along with campaigns from Alka-Seltzer, Chevrolet and the NFL itself almost overnight put consumer-generated advertising on the map.

Social media has had a breakout year. While most of the innovation is still in the consumer marketing sector, b-to-b marketers are joining the party. Businesses that cautiously circle the blogosphere over the last couple of years jumped in with both feet last year. Corporate blogs targeting business customers now include Kodak, Marriott, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Accenture, Southwest Airlines, Extended Stay Hotels and Wells Fargo.

Podcasts, those digital radio programs that almost no one had heard of two years ago, are now mainstream, with more than 90,000 programs listed on search engine PodNova. In the technology market, which has led the way in social media adoption, podcasts have become a standard companion to the more mature web cast. The convenience of the portable offline medium appeals to busy decision makers.

As an advertising medium, podcasting still hasn't found its footing. EMarketer forecasts that podcasts will be a $400 million advertising market by 2011. That's dramatic growth over current levels, but still a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $60 billion that Jefferies & Co. estimates businesses will spend on online advertising in 2010.

The real action in b-to-b podcasting is in programs produced by businesses to connect with their customers. Companies like American Airlines, Deloitte & Touche, Chrysler, General Electric and General Mills have launched programs about everything from business travel to nutrition. Needless to say, podcasts are ubiquitous in the publishing market. Directory Podcast Alley lists more than 1,500 podcast programs about business.

But it was video that hogged the spotlight in 2006. The phenomenal popularity of video download sites like YouTube (which logs 65,000 new videos each day), Google Video and Revver, combined with controversy over copyright issues, have made video the social media poster child.

Online video appeals to marketers on several levels. It allows them to inexpensively test ideas and to repurpose clips that would otherwise end up on the cutting room floor. Online video also offers a low-cost alternative to television, typically the costliest line item in the marketer's budget. Plummeting equipment prices and open-source software have made it possible for amateurs to produce reasonably good quality programs at very low cost. Video is also a particularly effective medium for viral marketing, the brand of promotion in which people link to and share popular content with each other.

There have been some notable business-to-business viral video successes. Blendtec, a Utah-based maker of blenders for home and commercial use, scored a mega-hit with "Will It Blend?," a series of Letterman-esque shorts in which Blendtec founder Tom Dickson pulverizes everything from golf balls to computer components using the company's products. The clip showing an iPod being turned to dust has logged more than 3.5 million downloads on YouTube alone.

Eastman Kodak scored a smaller hit with "Winds of Change," a humorous, self-deprecating video that was reportedly never meant to be seen outside the company. YouTube watchers overwhelmingly praised Kodak for acknowledging its past mistakes and vowing to be a leader in digital imaging.

Video and other viral marketing techniques have their downside, though. While word-of-mouth marketing can spread positive buzz with astonishing speed, buzz can work both ways.

Unilever N.V. experienced both extremes last year. It's "Dove evolution" video, showing a young woman's transformation into a billboard beauty, scored millions of downloads and positive comments. Yet a video invitation to customers to create videos for a Dove advertising campaign was so poorly received that the company shut down comments on YouTube.

All this activity rolls up into the bigger phenomenon of viral marketing, which is gaining traction in the b-to-b world. Grand Central Communications spread the word about its new product—a service that consolidates people's phone numbers—by seeding the blogosphere with free accounts. Bloggers' mostly rave reviews were noted by mainstream media, which gushed about the service.

Nokia Corp. is in its eighth iteration of a similar campaign in which high-end cell phones are distributed to influential bloggers whose commentary, both positive and negative, is posted on a company Web site.

Both companies are counseled by Comunicano, a marketing boutique that specializes in blogger relations.

Andy Abramson, who runs Comunicano, describes the strategy as "a story that pops in the media because of all the heat generated below. By the time the media bites, the story is already baked," he said. "Once you have a fully-baked brand, it's almost impossible to compete with."

Jupiter Research reported in March that 48% of brand marketers plan to use social marketing tactics in the next year, a 10% increase over the previous year. However, an earlier Jupiter study also reported that seven in 10 consumers don't trust product information they find on social media. The emergence of new services like PayPerPost, which pays bloggers to write about products, has stoked the controversy.

It's hard to believe that the concept of social media marketing barely even existed two years ago. For now, the trend has all the characteristics of a craze, and no one knows whether it will go mainstream or crash and burn. It's clear, though, that plenty of businesses will try their hands in the coming year.

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