Marketers are getting on board the social-media trend with their own networking sites for brand aficionados.
They may also attract critics, but it's a risk marketers believe they need to take. The branded sites won't rival mega social sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which already have millions of users, but complement them. Marketers spent about $1 billion to advertise their brands on such sites in 2008, according to eMarketer.
The next step is creating destinations that people can leap to from those ads and form user groups about the brand.
"Marketers are creating social networks that have lots of legs," says Debra Aho Williamson, a senior analyst at eMarketer. "They have one in Facebook, one in Twitter that links back to a corporate site. They don't expect to do all their social networking in one site."
Volkswagen, Tropicana and marker brand Sharpie are among brands with new social-networking sites that give people tools, blog capabilities and insider access to offers.
Sharpie this week will introduce sharpieuncapped.com, a site that will be the center of a campaign about using the markers for self-expression. Print and TV ads will promote the site, which features a gallery of work by users, a drawing tool, 12 bloggers who talk about using Sharpie products and a how-to section. A gallery shows Sharpie's 44 colors and ideas to dress up shoes, jeans or cards with the markers.
"It's about our loyal fans showing us the amazing things they've done with a Sharpie," says Sally Grimes, Sharpie's vice president of global marketing. "It's a new world out there with how you interact with consumers. It's what consumers say about us that matters. It's about being a part of that conversation and inspiring others."
Marketers must give up some control, however. Volkswagen calls it "open sourcing for a brand," says Charlie Taylor, general manager of digital marketing and events. Last month, VW launched blog TDI Truth & Dare (tditruthanddare.com), where people can comment on and learn about VW's clean diesel technology, and launched a Facebook group. The blog has received 35,000 unique visitors in just three weeks, and the Facebook site has 60,000 "friends."
"As it relates to social word of mouth and this new world order, it boils down to consumer control," Taylor says. "No longer are brands in control of the message."
Using such sites for a hard-sell pitch is a no-no, Taylor says. "I don't feel entitled as a brand to get too sales-y. We're trying to create relationships and dialogues. We believe that consumers are the ones selling cars for us."
Pepsi has a companywide social-media plan. Its Tropicana brand, for instance, has introduced The Juice, (www.blogher.com/thejuice), where women can share tips on getting more out of life. And Pepsi-Cola hosted a social-networking party around the last Super Bowl.
"We are allowing open conversation in branded areas, and we are encouraging dialogue good, bad or ugly," says Bonin Bough, director of global social media for PepsiCo. "Marketers are moving from impressions to building connections and from campaigns to conversations."
ASK THE AD TEAM
Q: A recent Visa commercial shows a fantastic pizza-dough-tossing scene. Do you know if this is a real pizza restaurant or "made-for-TV" location?
— Bob Gondek, Houston
A:The Ad Team found out from agency TBWA/Chiat/Day that it's actually a little bit of both.