The art of the cyber pitch is the fastest-growing segment of advertising. But there are pitfalls to leveraging the internet's social websites. And companies everywhere are hiring an army of young guns to find their way through. If you want to know how cyber hell feels, just ask General Motors, Dell, Apple, Domino's, Toyota - or any number of corporations that have been scorched online. It's the moment every chief executive dreads: when a social-media campaign - think Facebook, Twitter, Flickr - backfires badly and turns distinctly antisocial, or 'goes viral' in a bad way. "Complaint letters have never been so public," says the digital director at creative agency Three Drunk Monkeys, Ben Cooper. "Clients can overlook the fact that customers often start their online journey with Google. Search results carry a lot more weight than the beautifully crafted brand home page."
When General Motors asked web users to make their own short video extolling the virtues of the new Chevrolet Tahoe ute, the vast majority of 30,000 entries dutifully focused on the vehicle's key selling points. But rogue entries punned on everything from the sexual connotations of driving large cars to blaming the Chevrolet brand for global warming. Video entries included How Big Is Yours? and What Would Jesus Drive? In 2005, New York-based author, commentator and academic Jeff Jarvis notoriously blogged: "Dell sucks. Dell lies. Put that in your Google and smoke it." Out of his Google gripes, the Dell Hell movement grew.
Not long after, Greenpeace gave Apple one big cyber headache when it launched the Green My Apple campaign, which said that Apple products contained unsafe toxin levels. Last April, it was Domino's Pizza's turn to be burned online, when three disgruntled employees made a less-than-savoury home video doing unspeakable things to pizza. It was posted on YouTube - the fourth-most visited internet site - and scored 1 million hits quicker than you could say pepperoni.
Closer to home, Toyota and major advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi reached for a fire hose late last year after the winning entry of their competition to make a Toyota video ad was labelled sexist and degrading by angry viewers who damned it on the official Toyota competition Facebook site. The mere title of the winning entry, She can take a good pounding, gives you an inkling as to the problem. Online might be the fastestgrowing form of advertising, but when and how to wade into the web and what to do when you are forced online to put out flames remain the million-dollar questions for companies feeling their way with the new technologies. "Corporations are only just starting to get a real handle on how to use these sites," says the director of advertising monitor firm Fusion Strategy, Steve Allen. Allen has been in the business for 25 years and says thatalthough the internet is one of the most exciting developments in getting your message across, it's also a 'realtime' minefield. "There are as many big successes as there are embarrassments and the embarrassments tend to come up every other week," Allen says. "It's a learning thing. It's easy to get pilloried. But at least more and more corporations are in the space, trying to figure it out."
Andrew Varasdi - former SO&M group managing director and now head of Banjo Advertising, which larrikin ad man John Singleton co-founded - notes a sharp increase in the number of social-media campaigns his agency devises. But like most traditional ad men, he's cautious. "The biggest challenge in this medium remains evaluating the outcome and measuring the performance of social-media campaigns," Varasdi says. "Do hits translate to sales - who really knows? That's the burning question around this technology. What is the real return on investment in this space? And what does 5,000 hits really mean anyway?"
Varasdi has reassuring words for CEOs anxious about what's being said online and what to do about it. "Personally, I'm nervous about what sort of person has time to sit on their computer all day bagging the shit out of things," he says. "These are people no one has ever heard of before. I think everyone approaches the web with a lot more caution now than even a couple of years ago."
Online ad campaigns are still a long way from threatening the money poured into traditional advertising channels, such as television, billboard, cinema, print and radio. But a glance at advertising revenue figures shows the growth rate for online dramatically outstripping all other avenues. Fusion Strategy points out that online has been a key driver of total media advertising spending in recent years.
Fusion predicts the internet will be the fastest-growing medium for ad revenue over the next 12 months, posting a 10.2 per cent increase, to $2.1 billion in total spending. The second-fastest growth rate is expected to be in cinema advertising - 5.4 per cent. Two years ago, online represented 12.5 per cent of the nation's total ad spend. It is expected to rise this year to 16.85 per cent (of a $12.5 billion total spend forecast for the year). This clearly explains why everyone from insurance companies to car manufacturers is flirting with Flickr, itching to Tweet and flocking to Facebook. The figures alone are tantalising: Facebook says it now has 350 million users and that the average has 130 friends and spends 55 minutes a day on the site. If things go well, it's a public relations dream executed on a shoestring budget. The consumer does most of the legwork as your unofficial brand advocate - a process dubbed 'earned media' in the digital industry. On the flip side, if a blogger with 5,000-plus readers thinks a product sucks, the marketing department is in for a bad news day. The key is transparency, says Mike Hill, from digital marketing agency Holler. "Stop trying to muzzle the conversation," he advises. "People are talking about your brand online whether you like it or not. The smart brands will happily get involved in the conversation. The rest will be in trouble."
As corporations struggle to convert legalese and bank speak to digispeak, and Tweet in 140 characters or less, the traditional advertising agency landscape is also changing. Faster than a field of mushrooms, a new breed of young, 'creative or digital agencies' is springing up, alleging they can push your advertising dollar further while helping CEOs navigate the safest path through the virtual trenches.
Their raison d'être might be technology, but forget anything so soulless and uninspiring as a BlackBerry. These lads (and most are male) arrive at meetings armed with the essential accoutrement of their industry: a small, black Moleskine notebook. Invariably, they work out of whitewashed warehouse spaces featuring naked lightbulbs, oversized computer screens and lounge music. Their companies boast names like Soap, Sputnik, Amnesia, Naked, The Conscience Organisation, Reading Room and Three Drunk Monkeys.
Most of these agencies are entirely digital (with the exception of Three Drunk Monkeys, which has a digital arm but works primarily in traditional media). Digital includes not just leveraging social media, but also building websites, creating online ads and manipulating search engines towards your product by bidding the highest amount for keywords that will be most strongly associated with your brand (also known as search engine optimisation). "At this stage, agencies specialising solely in social media are still quite unusual - but we will see them springing up," says director of media and marketing website Mumbrella, Tim Burrowes.
Little wonder the new breed is enamoured of digital media. Thanks to being able to run online ad campaigns on a wing and a prayer, rather than the massive budget required to shoot a television commercial, "the cost of entry into the industry has dropped substantially", says Jules Hall, a former Accenture management ex-London consultant with 10 years' advertising experience who runs The Hallway. "All you need now are a couple of phone lines, a computer, and intellectual horsepower. You don't need to have Saatchi's palace in The Rocks to generate good ideas." Burrowes agrees: "The web has given quite small players the chance to act big." Take Holler's Hill. He's a former zoologist and wildlife photographer who holds an MA in interactive media and arrived in Sydney in 2006 after nine years with parent company Holler in London. He had $5,000 and a halfbroken laptop and managed to somehow clinch Universal Music and Westfield Group as Holler Sydney's first two clients. Today, Holler employs more than 30 full-time staff. The trump card of their medium of choice is its effectiveness as a tool of intimate personal communication, allowing information to be passed quickly from user to user.
In this vein, one of the most popular uses of digital media is for a good old-fashioned giveaway or some kind of online event that gets people Tweeting and Googling the relevant sites. Whether it actually shifts product more effectively than traditional advertising remains a huge grey area. Alex Allwood and her Holla Advertising agency are about to embark on just such a stunt on behalf of Pacific Brands' stocking label, Razzamatazz. The brand hasn't advertised for 20 years. Picking up on the thread of the 'Uh Oh Razzamatazz' TV commercial from the '80s, Holla has come up with a cost-effective digital campaign built around an online competition for the next 'Razzamatazz girl'. The winner will score a 12-month modelling contract with the brand.
When Tooheys launched its Extra Dry 5 Seeds Cider, Hill also went for a strategy of engagement. In addition to TV and outdoor ads, the company sent out online clues as to where giant papier mâché apples were hidden around Sydney, with prizes galore. Twenty of Australia's most influential bloggers - including lifehacker, pagesdigital, AWOL monk and lifelounge - were also sent apple hunt clues. "We wanted a campaign that sold an experience, not just the product," Hill says. "We used computers and phones to get people outdoors, away from their computers and phones." Tooheys was happy when Nielsen showed 5 Seeds at 15.4 per cent of the cider market for November, from a standing start.
When online travel giant Zuji approached The Hallway for a campaign last year, the agency looked to the sombre economic times to strike the right web note. With a budget of $250,000, it created the tag line 'helping holidays happen' and produced 10,000 cans of baked beans, which sold for 10¢ each. Consumers were encouraged to pocket the savings towards their annual holiday. The cans sold out within two weeks, Hallway shot a film about the campaign and uploaded it to YouTube, where it got 13,000 hits and attracted 10,800 blog references. Zuji gained a 38 per cent increase in traffic.
Zuji declined to release figures detailing whether the campaign translated into actual extra sales. But it appears Zuji declined to release figures detailing whether the campaign translated into actual extra sales. But it appears it was happy: 20¢ toothpaste and 30¢ loo paper are in the pipeline, in a nod to the ad's success. "Social media is the perfect catalyst to get people talking - but you have to make them connect with the brand in an interesting way," Hall says. The Hallway's baked beans stunt last year won a 2009 Gold Lion at Cannes and was a Titanium finalist for the 23 best ad campaigns in the world.
Social media comes into its own when promoting a good cause. Republic of Everyone specialises in nongovernment organisations and charities. Clients include the Sony Foundation, Carbon Planet, Cancer Council and Greenpeace. Republic's recent worldwide 'whale tail' campaign for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) encourages people to upload photos of themselves making a whale tail by cupping their hands. It also draws on celebrity support, including Federal Minister for the Environment Peter Garrett and musicians Christine Anu and Daniel Johns. Once Republic had built the website and begun collecting pictures, founder and partner Ben Peacock compiled all the images into a short-film commercial and then managed to get links back to his webpage from all the major online whale sites, including 'True Blood' and 'Fuck Off Japan - Leave Our Whales Alone', each with up to 250,000 members.
In an example of how quickly cyber campaigns can snowball, Peacock stood back and watched as whale tail drew attention on some of the hottest sites around, including Tree Hugger, YouTube's Agent Change hotlist and Trend Hunter. Even supermodel Gisele Bündchen blogged about the campaign - and pay TV channel National Geographic ran the film version of the campaign for free. Members of the British parliament ended up banding together to be photographed making whale tails, and supermodels also pulled the stunt on the catwalk at 2009's New York Fashion Show.
The campaign might have gone swimmingly, but did it actually save any whales? "We were just blown away by the response," Peacock says. "At the end of the day, I don't think we'll end whaling. But what this does is allow people to put a face to the cause and come up with a fresh way to petition governments." In all countries, the photos will be compiled into massive books and sent to governments.
Peacock is the first to acknowledge that internet marketing still rides on the coattails of traditional media. Online might be the fastest-growing medium for advertising and an effective way to protest, but the best driver of social media remains traditional media: "It gives it that critical kick," Peacock says. When Republic helped the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, build the 'biggest relief package in the world' for the world's largest refugee camp - Dadaab in Kenya - it flew a Channel Nine news crew to Africa for the story. Within minutes of the story running, thousands had been donated. The three-week campaign netted more than $350,000, of which about one-third was donated online. "Social or digital media probably couldn't have achieved that on its own," Peacock says. "This was a great example of the two working in tandem."
The head of industry body the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), Paul Fisher, quips: "Asking whether it's better to invest in social media or a television campaign generates pretty hot debate these days and not a lot of clear-cut answers." Ultimately, how much of online is worth listening to and how much is white noise remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: it's here to stay. Holla's Allwood points out that the most innovative companies are starting to advertise for in-house social-media managers, in a nod to the importance of this space. "They see the writing on the wall," Allwood says. "That social media should very much feed directly into customer relationship management."
So how much effort is worth investing in the medium, who is best placed to exploit it, and what solid outcomes should you be aiming for? Even the industry itself is trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. "The big debate going on at present is: Who's best placed to run social-media campaigns," Mumbrella's Burrowes says. "Is it people with a technical computer background? Is it people with a traditional advertising background, or those from the PR industry who understand what to do when the conversation starts heading in the wrong direction? Or is it all three?"
Three Drunk Monkeys' Cooper says the first step companies must take is to alter their mental mapping and accept that, more than ever, "the consumer is driving the message around the product". He holds up Dell's response to the Dell Hell movement as one of the more clever responses to online consumer backlash. As anti- Dell sentiment grew, back in 2007, company founder Michael Dell created the Dell IdeaStorm site.
On this official site, computer geeks can enjoy a vastly inflated sense of their own importance, trading high-tech tips on how to quieten Dell's noisy laptop fans and when to enable the advanced host configuration interface. If they are bagging the product, what does it matter, "IdeaStorm has crossed the 10,000 idea mark and implemented nearly 400 ideas!" the website proudly proclaims. "As Dell is always moving forwards and innovating, so is IdeaStorm." It's a textbook example of how one corporation is gleefully exploiting online communities by willingly handing the microphone to them - and enjoying the virtual ride.