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5 online initiatives we weren't ready for

5 online initiatives we weren't ready for Lori Luechtefeld

Innovation in the interactive space isn't just about having ideas -- it's about timing their execution just right. There's no sense in launching a campaign on a digital platform that has yet to achieve acceptance among the target audience. And yet, when campaigns are timed correctly, brands can position themselves as cutting-edge competitors by tapping into an emerging technology at the precise moment it hits the mainstream.

But pounce too early, and a tremendous amount of effort -- not to mention money -- may go to waste.

For this article, we asked a panel of industry experts to identify online initiatives that, at the time they were launched, didn't receive nearly the amount of attention that they would have in today's media environment. One reason for the comparatively lackluster results could have been that consumers hadn't yet embraced the technology behind the campaign -- or perhaps the concept for the promotion itself was just a little ahead of its time.

The examples our panel provided represent a wide range of online endeavors, some dating back more than a decade. Combined, they speak volumes to how quickly the interactive community has grown in recent years, both in size and sophistication. Take, for example, the combination ISP/internet portal that had the vision to be the next Google -- before Google was Google. Or, consider the team of brand marketers who had the foresight to put the power behind their marketing message into the hands of their consumers -- and were subsequently berated by the trade press for doing so.

Read on to learn more about these examples, as well as other online innovators who gazed -- sometimes too deeply -- into their crystal balls.

By Doug Chavez, Del Monte Foods

Back when nearly 98 percent of everyone reading this article was using dial-up, Paul Allen and the folks at Starwave created one of the first massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), called Castle Infinity. An adventure game aimed at 'tweens, Castle Infinity taught players to collaborate with each other to help a wayward band of dinosaurs eradicate their castle of evil monsters that had snuck in and threatened to destroy all the dinosaurs. Castle Infinity offered advanced features such as creating custom game personas by mixing and matching various body parts -- think Spore back in 1996. Castle Infinity was well ahead of its time and needed a strong and effective distribution strategy to recruit a still young online gaming audience.

In early November 1996, Starwave partnered with Blockbuster to distribute Castle Infinity "starter kits," which offered a trial of the game via a CD-ROM along with an ISP browser for continued online game play. Distribution thru Blockbuster was a great idea, especially given the high teen traffic at Blockbuster's vast retail footprint, as well as the company's entry into renting video games along with movies.

As part of the Castle Infinity starter kit, Starwave bundled a Netcom ISP solution into the package and included Netscape Navigator. This provided a good deal to consumers, especially since most did not have an ISP or a web browser -- both essential for Castle Infinity's success. While it may seem basic or even old school today, remember that AOL was just getting started with its mass mailings of its CDs.

The initiative had all the makings for success: a sophisticated distribution package, the first MMOG with any scale, mass reach through Blockbusters' retail presence, and probable revenue share among all parties. Yet in the end, Castle Infinity didn't catch on, and the campaign failed to attract a mass audience into online gaming. The slow dial-up speeds of the day combined with the bandwidth-intensive environment that made Castle Infinity so cool, as well as a change in Blockbuster's gaming strategy all doomed the Blockbuster/Starwave Castle Infinity campaign. If this campaign were launched closer to 2004 -- when broadband penetration reached a true critical mass in the U.S., and Blockbuster was under attack by Netflix and others -- this campaign may have had a better chance of delivering great results for Starwave, Blockbuster, and teens that were accustomed to playing games online.

Doug Chavez leads digital marketing and strategy at Del Monte Foods in San Francisco, Calif.

By Hilary Weber, Kaiser Permanente

I was asked to write about an interactive campaign that didn't receive a deserving amount of attention when it launched. I took some liberties with this assignment, in that the campaign I've chosen to profile definitely got a lot of attention when it launched -- but I feel that it was so ahead of its time, the attention it received was not the kind that we marketers typically relish. The campaign? The 2006 launch for Chevy Tahoe.

To set the stage, Chevy was about to do a major launch of the newly redesigned Tahoe. The web was (and still is) clearly the place to target younger buyers, who in 2006 were increasingly starting to ignore traditional media. Social media, at the time, was starting to show signs of its current mega-power. Chevy and its agency, Campbell-Ewald, decided to make what I consider to be a very bold move: They decided to embrace the new thinking about consumers' driving (no pun intended) the message, instead of the marketers. They provided video and music templates and invited consumers to make their own video spots for the Tahoe. (The one rule: no vulgar or indecent content.) They leveraged the existing Chevy sponsorship of the TV show "The Apprentice" to reach the campaign's target audience. Participants could then post their original videos to YouTube, on blogs, or on social networking sites -- basically, anywhere on the web.


This doesn't sound quite so radical now. But remember, in 2006, this was unheard of! A quote from Wired encapsulates the campaign's initial impact: "Last Spring's campaign for Chevy Tahoe broke every rule of marketing. The MBAs who populate ad agencies and corporate marketing department spend years learning the art of control -- what their cleverly calibrated messages should (and shouldn't) say, where they should appear and what should appear nearby. Chevy decided to chuck all that." (And indeed, a lot of us have deliberately "chucked all that" since then. At least, most of us approach marketing very differently than the way we did before -- because we now realize that we are in an ongoing, two-way conversation with our customers.)

The Tahoe campaign ran for four weeks and received tens of thousands of entries. As Campbell-Ewald and Chevy must have expected, there were a few entrants who used the components to create derogatory videos about the new Tahoe model, and these quickly spread virally across the web.

The trade press reacted negatively to this development. Chevy's campaign was called out as proof that they "just don't get social media," or they were "asleep at the wheel." Many assumed Chevy would instantly pull back all of the negative consumer-generated video content -- but the company didn't.

Chevy and Campbell-Ewald were clearly ahead of the pack in their thinking. By not pulling the videos out of circulation, they showed the world that they knew that it was time to bravely engage in a real interaction with their target audience, and that marketers no longer controlled a one-way stream of messaging. And they had confidence that the positive content created by their legions of fans would drown out the detractors' content.

So how did it all play out as far as Chevy's campaign objectives? Let's look at some campaign metrics:

  • After four weeks, 30,000+ videos were posted to chevyapprentice.com, nearly all positive.

  • In four weeks, the website received 5.7 million visits.

  • For three consecutive weeks, chevyapprentice.com was the top referring site to chevy.com, surpassing Google and Yahoo.

  • The average website visitor stayed nearly 10 minutes, viewing Chevy Tahoe-related content.

The Chevy Tahoe case is now considered a model of marketing innovation. Many influential blogs have chimed in about it -- even the old guard trade press has turned around. One great quote in Wired was by Scott Donaton, the editor of Ad Age, who "asked for a show of hands from all those who think the campaign proved the dangers of user generated content. 'Ah, yes', he wrote, 'there's quite a few arms raised -- you're all free to go, actually; the marketing business doesn't need your services anymore.'"

To me, the Chevy Tahoe campaign epitomizes the need for interactive marketers everywhere to embrace change, to remember that consumers control the conversation now (our turn is over), and to be brave and forge ahead with our strategic new initiatives, even if it is a bit daunting. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.

Hilary Weber is director of internet marketing services for Kaiser Permanente. 

By Jim Nichols, Catalyst: SF

In January 1999, back during the dot boom, two high-profile companies came together to create [email protected], a combination ISP and internet portal focused on providing broadband services. @Home's $6.7 billion purchase of Excite was one of the largest acquisitions in the go-go years of the dot boom, and the idea behind it was nothing less than transforming the web with personalization and broadband content.

Back then, the portal/search engine category was a world apart from what we see now. Google was still in its Stanfordian infancy, and a bunch of now tiny or moribund competitors like Infoseek, Go2Net, and AltaVista were then well funded and aggressive combatants.

It was [email protected]'s goal to leapfrog the start-page pack by becoming the undisputed leader of broadband portalry -- at a time where everyone else was trying to serve the 28.8 kbps crowd. [email protected] clearly believed that cable and DSL access were poised to fly into tens of millions of households.

[email protected]ome's offering really was groundbreaking -- a cornucopia of stuff you pretty much couldn't get elsewhere. What kind of stuff? How about:

  • Broadband tailored experience

  • Customizable homepage content

  • Personalized page layout

  • Page color selection

  • Avatars

  • Ability to choose photos

The trouble was, broadband adoption didn't explode. It grew gradually -- rather more slowly than the folks who threw $6.7 billion into the pot must have hoped. This chart, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, shows that broadband adoption made a cautious climb rather than a lightning leap.


Even worse, the bottom fell out of the online ad business, which made it impossible to pay the expenses of the combined entity, let along offer investors a decent return. While a Yahoo could muddle through selling banners on its billions of monthly homepage and mail views, Excite had no such secret weapon.

After about two years of musical CEOs, the company filed for bankruptcy protection. It then fell into a steady traffic decline, and is now a piece of a piece of a piece of IAC.

Make no mistake: These people had a crystal clear vision of what the future would hold. Excite got a lot of things exactly right. In an era where educated people were 1,000 percent certain that selling pet food online was a billion-dollar idea, Excite had uncommonly accurate vision and led the way in pioneering concepts and experiences that now dominate across the internet. It's impossible to imagine the web without such features today.

But most consumers spent years procrastinating on broadband, content to wait whole seconds for gifs to load. And most advertisers chose to ignore of the waning power of the glowing blue box in the living room. In any case, what the experience of [email protected] shows is that vision alone isn't enough. You can't cover payables with predictions or swap out reality with exuberant hope.

Jim Nichols is senior partner at Catalyst: SF.

By John McGarry, Continuity

The BMW Films series, launched in early 2001, is representative of a campaign that was forward-looking, in terms of both the technology and creative methods the campaign employed as it unfolded. A series of eight short films, BMW Films featured the work of popular Hollywood filmmakers and highlighted the performance aspects of various BMW cars. The videos featured actors crashing and blowing up these much-sought-after cars in high-speed chases and explosions. Using branded entertainment in an entertaining and engaging format, this campaign shied away from typical luxury brand advertising and was designed to attract consumers of a particular mindset.

Executions included broadcast, print, and outdoor elements, with a primary focus on promoting the actual films and not the cars. For its time, the campaign achieved stellar results, with millions of views on the BMW website. Yet there's little doubt that, with today's advances in online video technology, audiences would have had much greater access to this campaign, which would have dramatically increased traffic and viewership. Thanks to the rising popularity of sites like Hulu.com, Joost.com, and some of the network sites, consumers today are more comfortable watching longer format programming online. In fact, people are still downloading and watching the BMW Films today, so they continue to be relevant as our media habits evolve.

This is not how traditional campaigns usually unfold or how brands typically represent themselves. By creating these online videos, BMW realized this work would live on the web and would continue to be viewed by BMW fans. It's also worth noting that these films were best viewed by downloading a proprietary video player that (at the time) worked better and looked cooler than most video players. By using proprietary, high-end technology, the company helped position the brand itself as high-end, technologically advanced, and entertaining.

A less obvious example of a campaign that was ahead of its time technically is a campaign called Brahma "Drumprovise," which launched in late 2006. Brahma is a Brazilian beer whose brand is built around bringing a Brazilian flair, known as "Ginga," to a person's daily activities. The target audience for this campaign had an interest in all things Brazilian -- street art, music, creativity, and dance. A key manifestation of this strategy was an online digital music mixer that enabled visitors to create Brazilian themed music, and to place themselves in the middle of the Brahma's Brazil webcam, all via their desktops. 

Drumprovise is a Flash-based application that pushed the envelope in the online space. It represents a solid example of a campaign that used fresh technology to bring a strategy to life. However, its reach was limited based on the low penetration (at the time) of desktop cameras and high bandwidth. In addition, compared with today's social media environment, fewer opportunities were available to further support the effort through social networking tools and contests on sites like YouTube.

In addition, some of the regional marketing support shifted before the campaign launched to locations that had lower penetration of webcams and high-speed access. If these regions had more advanced internet access and more frequent use of webcams, it would have stimulated the viral nature of the campaign.


Both of the above campaigns were ahead of their time based on their use of technology to bring each brand's core strategies to fruition. The incorporation of the medium into the message continues to power innovation in advertising and, as always, it brings new, exciting content, entertainment, and tools to consumers.

John McGarry is founder and CEO of the New York-based digital agency Continuity.

Lori Luechtefeld is editor of iMedia Connection. 

Lori Luechtefeld is principal of strategic content firm Wookit Media and an associate at WIT Strategy. In both roles, she works with a network of media and marketing professionals to devise and fulfill on content strategies that connect...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Al Freeman

2009, February 12

Viewing the site was an excellent experience,

Commenter: Hilary Weber

2009, February 12

Cool story, Doug! I had never heard of this one. Sometimes it's all about being at "the right place at the right time".

Commenter: Andrew Kudrin

2009, February 11

the last page includes 2 initiatives

Commenter: Laurie Mayers

2009, February 11

Maybe I'm having connection problems here, but isn't that just four initiatives?