Palm Goes With Online-Only Launch for New PDA

Personal digital assistant manufacturer Palm, Inc. turned exclusively to the Web to push its newest product, relying on online direct marketing and targeted media buys to drive the launch of its i705.

The move marks a change for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based technology company whose earlier campaigns are probably best remembered for their stylish TV, print and out-of-doors work, designed by San Francisco’s AKQA.

But for the $450 follow-up to its Palm VIIx, the company said it believed it would achieve better results with an online, direct marketing-style approach, overseen by Boston-based Carat Interactive and its recently-acquired Lot21 unit, which has handled online work for Palm for several years.

“It’s not a mass-market product, and the people that we targeted within this were very identifiable in the sense that they were mobile, they were professional, they had owned a Palm previously,” said David Westendorf, director of wireless service marketing at Palm. “So the fact that we had very sharp crosshairs on these types of people lent itself to more of a direct approach and more of a mass approach.”

Added Barry Peters, vice president for emerging media and relationship marketing at Carat Interactive, “A lot of companies that have gone by the wayside spent so much on customer acquisition and not on remarketing to their user base. Palm has the luxury of 17 million to 20 million members out there, many of whom are registered. It’s an easy door to open because they’re already there.”

The effort centered initially around an e-mail teaser campaign designed to encourage pre-orders by letting registered Palm users, and members of rented opt-in lists, know that a new product was coming out. Beginning in early January, users periodically received cryptic e-mails with little more than the Palm logo and subject lines like “There’s a new Palm handheld coming out” and “Mum’s the word — the new Palm handheld is wireless.”

A few “highly targeted” media buys aimed to further the cause, Palm said, using banners and skyscrapers to drive product information registrations on the company’s site.

“The pre-launch phase essentially weighed on the strength of the Palm brand, saying, ‘Hey … there’s a new Palm coming out,'” Westendorf said. “It got picked up by a lot of the enthusiast Web sites … became a little bit of news unto its own, perhaps in a bit of the same way … as the Apple iMac launch campaign: a lot of word of mouth.”

“It drew upon the very viral nature of our owners and enthusiasts who typically talk a lot and share a lot and beam each other apps,” he added. “That sort of communal approach worked on our behalf.”

The teaser campaign also served another important goal besides building buzz: maintaining it after a major gaffe. Palm accidentally spilled the beans about the i705’s pending release in late August, but warned soon thereafter that the device would be delayed until after the holiday season.

“The product was delayed a little bit, and there was a lot of conjecture about what was going to happen,” Peters said. “We wanted to rebuild the excitement that was there over the past several months.”

Following the product’s release on Jan. 28, Palm began ramping up toward a second phase of the campaign, using high-visibility keyword buys and media buys — tapping sites like Dow Jones’ and the PGA Tour Web site.

In terms of sales generation, the campaign looks to have been a winner. Palm has told analysts that sales of the i705 have been robust, with Web sales topping 4,000 in the first week. Including retail sales, that figure is closer to 13,000.

Westendorf declined to detail the campaign’s results, but said that, “My boss and I took a bet of a bottle of wine over it, and I took the high side … and I won.”

The news represents a significant validation for advocates of the Web’s ability to target consumers (and in this case, to remarket to them) more cost-effectively than other media. Budgets for the campaign were only in the “mid-six-figures,” which Peters described as “lean.”

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