Back-to-school pitches go social with Facebook, Twitter

The first sighting of Britney Spears' new back-to-school commercial for Candie's wasn't on TV. Or in theaters. Or even on the website of the hip, tween-targeting seller of footwear and clothing.

Those venues would be so 2008.

The spot that shows a sultry Spears ogling a guy at a polo match had its premiere online Thursday on social-networking sites Facebook and BritneySpears.com and promoted by Spears via social network Twitter — where she had 2,536,459 "followers" as of midweek. Candie's purposefully launched the ad this way in hopes that millions of girls will send it back and forth to each other.

"We tease. We tempt. Then we deliver," says Dari Marder, chief marketing officer at Iconix Brand Group, which owns Candie's. Four days after the commercial's social-media debut, the first television broadcast of it — an eternity in the age of online buzz — is due Monday on MTV.

Last year, cutting-edge back-to-school marketing for the pop culture-driven brand was all about luring young girls to the Candies.com website. This year, back-to-school marketing is all about driving discussion in online social-media "communities."

"Young people are turning to social networks first to make decisions about what to buy for back-to-school. If you're not there, you're not reaching them," says digital guru Charlene Li, founder of the consulting firm Altimeter Group.

Being in the right place this year couldn't be more critical. Back-to-school spending will be down 7.7% to about $548 per family vs. $594 a year ago, projects the National Retail Federation. And a national online survey this month by accounting firm Deloitte found 64% of consumers plan to spend less on back-to-school items than last year.

"The game has changed, and the stakes are higher this year because of the recession," Li says.

That's why Candie's is increasing its social-media presence by 50% this back-to-school season, Marder says.

Bebe, the hip clothing company, let its new $199 jeans show up first on a friendly blogger's site — where chatter was positive — before showing them elsewhere. J.C. Penny recently launched its first teen-targeted Facebook page for back-to-school. American Eagle Outfitters will be giving away jeans on its Facebook page. Even Crayola is launching a back-to-school social-media effort for moms with a Twitter feed that will be hosted by a mommy micro-blogger.

In just one year, social media has become ubiquitous in every serious back-to-school marketing program, says digital marketing guru Chad Stoller.

The drivers: dollars, young eyeballs and the digital version of still the best advertising — word of mouth.

The money that businesses spend on social media now is growing faster than any other form of online marketing. Some 25% of small businesses surveyed by Ad-ology Research said they would spend more on social networking in 2009, beating the numbers who'll spend more on e-mail, blogging or company websites. Forrester Research projects the $455 million that companies spent on social networking in 2008 will balloon to more than $3.1 billion by 2014, a growth rate more than three times what it forecasts for e-mail marketing.

Are teens vulnerable?

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