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Alltel: From TV Pitchman to MySpace Buddy

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CHICAGO One year ago, as Alltel was winding down a campaign using celebrity impersonators to skewer its larger telecom competition, the company's agency, Campbell-Ewald, created a MySpace page for Alltel spokescharacter Chad, a handsome 28-year-old blond guy. The intention was to counter the TV campaign's mock trial, which was told from the point of view of the competition.

But a funny thing happened when Chad hit cyberspace: He became popular, registering more than 3,500 friends on his MySpace page as of last week. "We noticed that people were following along with the story," said Iain Lanivich, digital creative director at the Interpublic Group-owned agency. "After we set up the MySpace page for Chad, people were finding it organically with every TV spot we came up with."

As the shop set about developing the second phase of the campaign, which depicted a bumbling crew of fictional salespeople from Alltel's competitors trying to subvert Chad's (and Alltel's) messages and product, they also wanted to devise a way to capitalize on Chad's newfound Internet popularity. Thus was born the ManCave, an Internet site positioned as the place where Chad's nemeses devise their schemes.

"We wanted to make sure our story had evolved to make sure our marketing took advantage of social networking," said Wanda Young, director of interactive marketing for the Little Rock, Ark.-based wireless company.

The Web site, which can be accessed through Alltel's home page as well as www.officialmancave.com, is an extensive rendering of a basement (belonging to one of the competitor's parents). Intended to be more than a one-note site, the ManCave has three rooms—a "Man Lounge," a kitchen and a "ManBrary"—with more than 50 clickable hot spots that lead to videos of the competitors devising schemes or a game that uses a photo of Chad as a dartboard. The site also includes a game in which cards collected from Dungeon Masters Eternal Quest, a fictional version of Dungeons & Dragons, can unlock additional videos, promotional codes and other offers.

"If you're going to launch something like this, it better be better than the last thing," Lanivich said. "We pushed Flash technology as far as we could. We really wanted to give people a reason to come back."

Although Young wouldn't provide official figures for hits on the site since it launched in mid-August, she said the average length of time a user spends on the site is "well over six minutes," and far exceeds the time users spend on other Alltel sites.

And it's been achieved with only minimal promotion. The agency re-edited some of its traditional television spots to include an unauthorized interruption from denizens of the ManCave. The agency also posted an item on Chad's MySpace blog about the site, and sent out an e-mail blast to users who had posted comments on Chad's site. Later this month, the company will promote the site through a music promotion via the nemeses' rap group, Wireless Thugz, which also has a MySpace and ManCave presence.

In a category that's heavily skewed toward hard-sell promotional efforts, the ManCave is decidedly softer. Young admitted that's by design, but noted there are areas that make a more obvious Alltel sales pitch, such as a Spywall of the provider's promotional offers and a Phone Lab where the nerds dissect its new phone offerings.

"We're constantly replacing offers and promotions on the Spywall and in magazines [on the site]," Lanivich said. "All the latest phones are on the shelves."

Still, Lanivich considers the ManCave to be more of a "branding exercise," the results of which may not be seen for quite a while, especially given the standard two-year contract terms of most cell phone companies. "You're either looking for a new phone right now, or you're not looking for one for another two years," he said. "It's really almost a test. So far, everyone's been really pleased with what's going on."