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4 online brand gimmicks that failed

4 online brand gimmicks that failed Bryan Maleszyk

By now, marketers know that brands cannot fully control their own message anymore. Consumers now have a diverse set of channels through which they can interact with their digital world, and they've taken rightful ownership of their own destiny when interacting with brands through those channels.

In an effort to be heard and to increase engagement, brands are turning to new, innovative ways to approach the digital marketing landscape, from social environments such as Twitter and Facebook, to blogger outreach and global alternate reality games. Like anything else new and innovative, the risk of failure in these approaches runs high, and the payoff is unknown.

But failure, if done early and often, can be more instructive than success. Let's look at four new and innovative ways that brands attempted to engage with their consumers through digital, and see what lessons we can learn.

Lesson 1. Tell a story, but make it your story
In February 2008, 50 bloggers and gamers received mysterious packages in the mail containing clues to an online alternate reality game (ARG) with a clear call to action: Find "The Lost Ring." These packages kicked off a six-month effort across the globe by more than 150,000 players in seven languages to uncover a lost Olympic game. The game officially ended at the Beijing Olympics, and it generated more than its share of accolades in marketing circles.

But that's only half of the story. The game is a classic example of what's known as "dark marketing" -- a viral campaign in which the sponsoring brand (in this case, McDonald's) is barely, if ever, acknowledged. The theory is that mentioning the brand would turn potential gameplayers off when they realize that they're simply playing a part in a larger marketing campaign. In this case, it wasn't revealed that McDonald's was participating until months after the game began.

ARGs have proven to be successful in the past and are an incredibly viral method of participatory storytelling on a grand scale. Yet in most cases where measurable success was achieved, the ARG told a story that was at least tangentially related to the brand that sponsored it. Consider ABC's "Lost Experience" and "Find815" ARG campaigns, which gave rabid fans of the hit show something to do during its hiatus while simultaneously telling some of the show's back story -- all without diminishing the experience of watching "Lost" for consumers who didn't participate. 

BMW created an ARG surrounding a fictional town, "Oberpfaffelbachen," that built a huge ramp up to launch the BMW 1-Series in America. In each of these cases, the story of the game tied back to the story of the brand, even if the tie-in was slight or tongue-in-cheek.

Lastly, in order to measure the success of an ARG, it's important to understand how the brand is perceived before, during, and after the game. Using sentiment analysis tools to continually measure what people are saying about the brand can identify the baseline sentiment and the brand lift during the campaign, as well as any lingering effects after the game has ended.

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Lesson 2: Turn the chairs inward (and take a seat)
It's become a marketing cliché: Your consumers are talking, and your brand is the topic of conversation. In an effort to show that they understand this, Skittles decided to bring that conversation to the fore in the guise of its official website, which it replaced with an unsupervised Twitter feed that showed every tweet mentioning the Skittles brand. At the same time, the brand allowed website visitors to switch between its Wikipedia page, YouTube account, and other social media outposts using a simple widget. Within 48 hours, the messages on Twitter were littered with expletives.

Skittle's parent company, Mars, had a great idea, but while it exposed conversations around the brand to the bright, harsh light of day, the company neglected to participate in it.

By participating, Mars could have managed the conversation around its brand, instead of letting it spin out of control. Consider what Pepsi did with the "Pepsi Cooler" on FriendFeed, a social media aggregator now owned by Facebook. Pepsi managed the conversation through multiple social media channels partly by taking a seat at the table and participating as an equal contributor.

Lesson 3: Behave Yourself
My iPhone is the most personal of personal technology devices. It's always on my person, it's always on, and it contains my contacts, calendar, and music; it's my life in my pocket. It makes perfect sense that a smartphone app can be a great way to increase engagement with consumers.

But remember, when in the personal space of your consumers, it's vital that you follow their rules of etiquette. Pepsi released an iPhone application to support its AMP energy drink that was designed to help make male customers more successful with the ladies. The app categorized women into types, and it offered pick-up lines targeted to those types. The backlash was so great that Pepsi yanked the risque app from the App Store and offered a public apology.

Mobile apps have been a great way to create a service out of a brand. Molecular worked with Nikon on an app that helps its consumers take better photos, regardless of whether they own a Nikon camera or not.

When you engage with consumers on their turf, on a device as personal as their mobile phones, make sure that service is helpful. To Pepsi's credit, it admitted the mistake, but it could have been avoided by understanding how far it could take the joke without offending its audience.

Lesson 4: Keep the circle of trust intact
Reaching out to influential bloggers is a great way to generate buzz around a new product launch. The best bloggers will give a fair and honest review of the product, thereby extending the trust that these folks have established with their loyal audience to your brand.

When ASUS reached out to bloggers to review the new Eee PC 901 laptop, it was counting on that trust. But instead of simply letting the bloggers review the product, they made it a competition. They chose six bloggers to write a minimum of three 200-word posts a week about their laptop over the course of four weeks. The blogger with the most readers would win the laptop.

ASUS didn't expect what happened next: The blogger with the most readers wrote a review that, while honest and fair, wasn't exactly favorable to the product. So ASUS changed the rules. Instead of the most readers, the winner of the laptop would be chosen by a vote taken by the six bloggers themselves, resulting in another blogger winning in the end. The readers revolted by posting scathing comments on the announcement of the winner.

Product ratings and reviews work because they are written by the folks consumers trust most: other consumers. When a brand tries to game the system, this breaks the circle of trust. Instead of changing the rules, Asus might have been better off thanking the winner for his review, acknowledging (or defending, when necessary) the product's limitations, and working the feedback into future products.

There are so many new ways of interacting and engaging with consumers today. Their conversation is fragmented, their attention span short, and their tolerance for BS is low. Without well-established roadmaps for success, it is inevitable that we will sometimes fail when attempting to engage with consumers in new and innovative ways. But by learning from failure, we are left with enormous potential to provide exceptional brand experiences that do succeed.

Bryan Maleszyk is an experience design consultant for Molecular.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Bryan is a Senior Experience Designer at Isobar North America. He joined the team in May of 2008, and has since lead user experience design and strategy for clients such as adidas, Philips Lighting, and Nikon.

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