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 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 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?

That may be smart for businesses — it's too early to know the payback in hard sales — but some consumer advocates worry social media's commercialization will take advantage of unwary teens. "Young people are constantly exposing themselves on Facebook and Twitter," says Alissa Quart, author of Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. "They don't see the difference between advertising themselves or being advertised to."

Think of it this way. In 2007, 57% of Americans were using or participating in some sort of social media. By 2008, it was 75%, Forrester reports. At the same time, 64% of marketers use it in some way, and use is spreading beyond mass-market consumer brands into the more staid marketing environment for things such as financial services and health care.

"Social technologies are here to stay," says Jeremiah Owyang, senior analyst at Forrester.

Just ask the folks at Candie's.

It's all over Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blog communities trying to get its money's worth out of its costly contract with Spears. It's nudged Spears to constantly use Twitter to tout the brand. Before she filmed the Candie's commercial, she tweeted about it. While she filmed it and after she finished, she also tweeted.

"Because she has such a giant following, when she tweets about us, it (multiplies) into the millions," Marder says. Ditto for the update on her Facebook page. All of this has a lot more credibility when it's coming from the celeb, not from the brand itself, Marder says.

But Candie's also does its own tweeting about the commercials. And it links from its Twitter page to the Kohl's website that sells its stuff.

"This is insider access that junior consumers just love to get," Marder says. The purpose of all this, she says, is to reach teen girls in the place they emotionally live — and where they form their opinions. For Spears, it's also about getting lots of free exposure for her new song, Radar, which plays throughout the spot.

Candie's was especially happy when Hollywood blogger Perez Hilton joined the online conversation. After photos from the Spears ad began to leak, he sniffed on his blog that they looked extensively retouched.

Candie's retorted via tweets that the ads were barely retouched — and sent the original photos to Hilton. This stirred comment on Hilton's blog and in the Twitter universe. "It's not a bad thing if he's talking about us. It gives the brand that much more exposure," Marder says.

How other retailers and brands are seeking social-media attention for their back-to-school offerings:

•J.C. Penney. A month ago, with back-to-school in mind, J.C. Penney launched a teen-targeted Facebook page ( Teens can comment there on styles they like — and don't like. It links to the site,where online purchases can be made.

"Younger consumers are not consuming traditional media," says Mike Boylson, chief marketing officer. "What we're spending in digital space is so much more than we did three years ago that the percentage (increase) would be off the charts."

•American Eagle. During 2008's back-to-school season, the apparel maker and retailer didn't even sponsor a Twitter account. This year, it has cross-departmental teams of employees — from PR, merchandising, product design and marketing — all working on its social-media strategy, which runs from Twitter to Facebook and beyond, says Mike Dupuis, vice president of digital marketing.

In one back-to-school promo, the company will give away on its Facebook page a pair of American Eagle Artist Jeans ($29.50 to $49.50 ) every hour for 24 hours beginning Aug. 6 at midnight ET.

Since the brand caters to 15- to 25-year-olds of both genders, social-media outlets are crucial, Dupuis says. "We're just mirroring the way they communicate with each other when we communicate with them."

•Bebe. The teen-targeted clothing retailer has a social-media-based "Rock Bebe Jeans" back-to-school campaign.

On its Facebook page and its website is a video for a "star in your own rock video" promotion. In the video, three girls — whose faces are covered — dance in new Bebe jeans, including one pair that fetches $199. Viewers are urged to upload photos of themselves — or friends — to replace the blank faces on the dancing girls. And, of course, to then share the videos with friends.

"Social media creates much more depth to the entire rollout," says Barbara Wambach, chief administrative officer.

Bebe also has identified 50 bloggers who write about Bebe and is trying to develop unpaid relationships with them.

•Nike. In a back-to-school twist this fall for its NIKEiD custom design division, Nike will offer a new iPhone application that lets you customize the design and colors of women's footwear and apparel on the device (currently, this can only be done on a computer). After you've designed the shoe that you think you want, you can share the design with friends via Facebook before you commit to buying it.

"It's all about making sure that we're part of our customers' lives," says Stefan Olander, global director for brand connections at Nike. "Social media is a very natural extension of that."

•Staples. Staples didn't do any social media for back-to-school last year. But this year, it is doing so to reach out to a market it's typically ignored — teens.

It created a Facebook page a few months ago, and showed its new back-to-school commercial on its page before the ad aired on TV. The same Facebook page is promoting a cause-marketing effort to collect school supplies for needy students. Teens who participate are encouraged to invite others to do the same.

"This isn't social media for social media's sake," says Don LeBlanc, senior vice president of retail marketing. "It's about how to connect with teens for back-to-school."

•Crayola. Color Crayola convinced about social media. No, it's not tweeting to 6-year-olds, but it is blogging to their moms. It commissioned a popular mommy blogger, Jyl Johnson Pattee, to lead a blog panel on back-to-school topics every Tuesday night in August.

Crayola also has a Facebook page. And a Twitter presence. "When moms talk about the creative development of their children, they get very excited," Crayola CEO Mike Perry says. "Social media gives them a chance to do that."