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Marketers Get Real

To foster instant connections in a digital world, brands take to the Web with live content

In a Times Square studio last Thursday, actor Ed Norton was interviewed as part of a Diet Coke promotion. The interview was beamed live to billboards in Times Square, as well as on the Diet Coke Web site and banner placements sprinkled on sites like E! Online, Cosmopolitan and Hello.

Diet Coke is not the only brand going live to garner attention. Marketers including Burger King and Adidas are warming up to real-time Web content, mirroring a shift in digital media away from asynchronous communication and content delivery (e.g., the sending of e-mails and watching posted videos) towards instant feedback and interaction. Upping the ante for these marketers are real-time systems like Twitter and Facebook, which mix content delivery with communication, making something hours' old seem stale.

"It's fascinating because it's really about the brand letting it all hang out and not being afraid of messing up," said Lars Bastholm, chief digital creative officer at Ogilvy North America. "If brands want to ... be seen as 'friends,' then they also need to have flaws like real people have."

Crispin Porter + Bogusky is experimenting heavily with live video. In October it ran an integrated campaign for BK promoting a live Web program featuring Nascar driver and BK endorser Tony Stewart proving his love of the Whopper by taking a lie detector test.

"The best way to deliver truth is real time," said Alex Bogusky, co-chairman of Crispin. "Part of Saturday Night Live's appeal is ... something can go wrong, someone can say 'shit.' We could have done a lie detector test and posted it, but it would have seemed less true."

Crispin, in fact, has just launched its own weekly show on live Web site Justin.tv. "Fearless Q+A" features Bogusky and another Crispin exec answering questions submitted via Twitter. It's a venue and similar format the shop used for client Microsoft with the "PC Hookup Show" over the summer. Stuff White People Like creator Christian Lander interviewed Web celebs like blogger Ben Huh (I Can Has Cheezburger) and Diggnation host Alex Albrecht, and answered viewer questions. The twice-weekly show had 1.4 million views, both live and recorded.

"I think people lower their guard that they're being marketed to because they get to participate," said Evan Solomon, vp of marketing at Justin.tv, which has run live campaigns for brands like Dr Pepper and Adidas.

Competitor Ustream has worked with CompUSA, Virgin America and Mountain Dew. Last Thursday, Stella Artois used it to live stream the World Draught Master Finals, where bartenders competed to pour the best beer.

The use of live content is not relegated to video sites. Nike two weeks ago drummed up interest in its Nike Football Facebook fan page with a promotion featuring Arsenal soccer star Cesc Fabregas (pictured), who took over the page for an hour. He answered questions, and posted photos from practice and games along with status updates. The Nike Football page drew hundreds of questions and comments from fans.

Tom Bedecarre, CEO of AKQA, the Nike agency that orchestrated the effort, said, "You need to create reasons for people to come back."

And, of course, live content has a silver lining that would appeal to any penny-pinching marketer: it's often cheap. Adidas last week ran a campaign on Justin.tv that featured Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose answering fan questions in real time. Other than the ad buy with the site, Adidas agency Freestyle Interactive only had to train a camera on Rose.

"It's a lot less polished," said Aaron Lang, client services director at Freestyle. "You get a sense of who they are. ... Everybody's talking about consumers owning your brand. It's just one more way of giving people access."

There is a downside, though, to live Web content: the numbers can appear quite small. Interacting in real time, particularly through video, is still a niche activity. Justin.tv is the largest live Web video provider (others include Ustream and Qik), but it drew just 3.1 million U.S. visitors in September, according to comScore. And many of its viewers are typical Web early adopters: young and overwhelmingly male. According to comScore, 67 percent are between 18 and 44 and 73 percent are male.

"We don't expect this to be the same scale as when we run a 30-second spot on the Oscars," said William White, the global brand director at Diet Coke. "But it's a targeted, unique approach to get consumers who are spending a lot of time on the Web that we might not reach in other ways."

That's why experimentation isn't likely to slow, according to Bogusky. "It's where things are going," he said. "It's hard to say there will be less live content out there. I wouldn't make that bet. And I wouldn't bet on companies that fear transparency surviving."

— Nielsen Business Media