Using IM for Marketing

Instant messaging (IM) — whether on the public or enterprise side — is generally known for hooking up two people in a real-time conversation via the Internet or private network. What IM is not necessarily known for is reaching customers.

Through the efforts of several companies, though, the latter is about to change.

Already, public IM concerns America Online and Yahoo are using the real estate in and around their respective IM clients to place advertisements for various companies — Yahoo already has its IMvironments, and AOL is set to release its “Expressions” environments in the next version of its AIM client.

Other companies, though, are looking beyond using those traditional ideas to actually using IM conversations as part of their marketing campaigns.

Getting to Know Your “Neighbor”

Todd Tweedy is no stranger to the worlds of instant messaging and marketing. Earlier this year, the Washington, D.C.-based owner of The Tweedy Group introduced a new model for marketing via IM called “neighboring.” In a nutshell, Tweedy says neighboring will change the context of product and service recommendations by encouraging individuals to express their own views and voice about a product or service to their own private network of personal contacts. This becomes especially important as IM networks create an extra degree of separation between consumers and advertisers.

Unlike most marketing campaigns, neighboring uses dialogs that are initiated, modified, and terminated by individuals within an IM network — not by a corporation or marketing firm. Neighboring, in contrast, lets advertisers gain access to closed-social networks by using real-time communication tools, such as IM, so that advertisers can communicate product and service recommendations from neighbors to individuals across small groups.

The power of the neighboring model lies with the influence an individual has in an established small network, as well as the strength of the relationship an individual has with an advertiser.

Instant messaging has already become a powerful relationship tool for individuals, but since businesses are effectively walled off from such a networked community, they will be forced to rely more on their current customers to initiate and distribute product and service recommendations, Tweedy says.

Now he’s working with several companies, including a major publisher and a well-known educational Web site, to implement the neighboring strategy.

Some publishers are looking to use instant messaging as a way to provide additional value to their advertisers, “and to create new revenue streams, especially when (advertising sales directors) are not selling a lot of their ad inventory to begin with,” Tweedy said in a recent interview. “It’s really looking at providing another layer of value to the advertiser especially in long-term partnerships with a specific publisher.”

The “advertising” via IM would take on more of a customer-service flavor. For example, a customer-service rep IM’ing with a customer can make a product recommendation from a company that also is an advertiser at the site. Tweedy is working with the educational Web publisher to move customer support right in front of the site visitor using instant messaging, through pop-up windows or floating modules.

In addition, sites can utilize IM to share the opinions of other customers who are interested in making their views known to other visitors, “to make them part of the customer service team,” he said.

A lot still needs to be ironed out, though, before the strategy can really take hold, he said. “The problem is how do we integrate an instant messaging opportunity into the content framework of a major publisher, or another type of publisher,” Tweedy said. “Where do we integrate the instant messaging ad package so we can support product and service recommendations, and tie them directly to sales?”

Dow Jones and IM Bots

One publisher looking at using IM for marketing is Dow Jones & Co. . Michael J. Henry, Director of Online Sales for Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal, could not discuss details about how the company is planning its IM/marketing strategies. But he did share his ideas on how IM can be used in marketing.

Henry said that that Dow Jones wants to make its content available to its readers wherever and whenever they need it. “To me, the IM space is compelling for certain types of content that need to be timely and are concise — and we’ve got lots of that,” he said.

Because of his position, Henry said he’s considered a lot of the IM/marketing options from a marketer’s perspective. Marketers can attach their messages to quality content and attract a quality audience in the process via IM marketing, “and hopefully leverage a new dimension in the process,” he said. But the real opportunity for marketers will lie in their further cultivation of a customer or prospect via IM.

Henry is a big supporter of interactive-agent technology — also known as IM bots. Interactive agents are software applications that interact with users via IM or other text-messaging services. ActiveBuddy, for example, has developed several agents that are mainly used by companies wanting to push products or services to consumers, including eBay, Reuters, ELLEgirl Magazine and the people behind the latest Austin Powers movie.

IM bots can connect disparate data sources with an IM interface that consumers can use to fetch all different kinds of information. Airlines, for example, can disseminate fares and deals with the same speed that Mom has when she talks to her son in college. With opt-in capabilities, an airline can even alert those willing to receive deals via IM, without the end user initiating the conversation.

A cargo carrier like FedEx, meantime, can use an IM-based interactive agent to let its customers track packages — without going to the Web site. And any Web site owner can use IM to help their users search the site better.

In addition, “Any marketer with a unique personality, can really embrace the IM bot technology through one-on-one dialogue between their `voice’ or celebrity and the user,” Henry said. For example, the ActiveBuddy-developed “Austin Powers” bot delivered movie times, trivia, games and merchandise via an IM presence and a voice that, shall we say, was “Groovy, baby!”

By using IM bots, “marketers can develop a whole new dimension to their relationship” with their customers, Henry said.

Several developers, including ActiveBuddy, can build IM bots that, in turn, can help consumers via IM. ActiveBuddy also recently released a server that can “house” buddies for companies.

IM a “No-Spim” Zone”

One way of using IM to market to consumers that most experts agree will not work is via spam-like unsolicited messages — or “spim,” as it is known in the IM world. A recent study of broadband users from BroadJump Inc. showed that spim is definitely a no-no, and that banner ads largely go unnoticed in IM client windows.

IM is perceived by users to be a personal communication tool, not a promotional vehicle. Therefore, users in BroadJump-led online focus groups said it was “inappropriate” for IM to be used for promotion.
Advertising via IM is largely ignored, because “People get so involved with chatting, that they don’t even see the ads that are already out there,” said Jeremy Friedlander, strategic marketing manager for BroadJump. “So if you look at AOL’s Instant Messenger, a lot of these people didn’t even recognize, per se, that there were little banner ads inserted into the clients themselves.”

If service providers sent along pop-up IM messages with specials on services, users would view such an action as “an invasion on their personal space,” he also said. “When they’re using IM, they’re using it to relate to other friends. It is a personal interaction, and having a service provider interrupt that with a promotion is not appropriate.”

While BroadJump did not ask about opt-in IM advertising, the company did find that permission-based marketing through channels like e-mail was accepted by the focus groups’ members. But advertising intervals need to be in check — about once a month, Friedlander also said. Even though the opt-in IM question was not asked, Friedlander did say it can be inferred that opt-in IM advertising and marketing would be acceptable to broadband IM users.

Not surprisingly, e-mail was found to be the most preferred method for receiving promotions. By using e-mail, subscribers have the most control over marketing messages — they can decide when and if to read them, delete them, ignore them and/or respond to them.

Interested in marketing via instant messaging? Then join us at the Instant Messaging Planet Fall Conference and Expo, Sept. 9-10 at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco. You can see more information here.

Bob Woods is the managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.

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