In promoting a new calling plan this spring, U.S. Cellular wanted to reach college-age consumers and speak to them on their own terms. While normally that might mean convening focus groups, commissioning surveys and poring over market-research reports, the Chicago company's youth-focused ad agency, G Whiz, decided instead to listen to what their potential customers were saying on their blogs.
Through Umbria Communications, a market-research firm in Boulder, Colo., G Whiz was able to eavesdrop on blog conversations. Umbria used linguistic analysis to ferret out U.S. Cellular's target group and collect cell-related blog postings. "We were more of a fly on the wall," said Bethany Harris, svp and director of client services at G Whiz in New York, a WPP Group shop.
The feedback showed Harris just how attached young adults are to their phones. They complained about unwanted calls that drag on and on, eating into their minutes and forcing them to turn off their phones toward the end of their billing cycles, leaving them feeling isolated from their friends. G Whiz quickly crafted four TV spots that played off those themes. In one, a man in his early 20s has to listen to one of his buddies who calls from a concert and holds the phone up for him to hear the music. On-screen copy reads: "With U.S. Cellular, you get Unlimited Call Me minutes. So even when people waste your time, they don't waste your money."
While blogs have gained attention for their promise as new advertising outlets or marketing vehicles, U.S. Cellular's experience shows their potential as the ultimate focus group, capturing unvarnished opinions that can affect product choices and marketing strategies.
"We find Web logs are a very rich source [of market intelligence], because people don't just go to talk about a recent movie, they go to talk about their lives," said Howard Kaushansky, CEO of Umbria, which was founded in March 2004 and counts Sprint and Electronic Arts among its clients.
The blogosphere is vast, with more than 11 million blogs in existence, according to Technorati. Intelliseek, which provides blog-tracking services, estimated last year that 20,000 new blogs are created every day. That growth has stirred marketers to look for ways to learn from the frank, intimate conversations happening online.
Some marketers have tried to insert themselves into the talk, mostly unsuccessfully. Two years ago, Dr Pepper recruited a group of young bloggers to write about its new Raging Cow milk drink. That effort drew widespread condemnation from bloggers, who ridiculed it as a greedy corporate exploitation of the form. In November, Mazda was similarly lambasted for creating a fake blog with viral videos by a fictional 22-year-old blogger.
In a Forrester Research survey last month, 64 percent of marketers expressed interest in advertising on blogs. Google's AdSense and blog ad networks like Blogads allow them to do so. But treating blogs as just another media outlet misses the point, said John Cate, vp and national media director at Aegis' Carat Interactive. "As blogs mature, advertising in them will not be a big deal," he said. "Using them to gain insights will provide lasting value."
Blog feedback can be cheaper and quicker to obtain than traditional research, while also being free of biases inherent in paying people to be in focus groups, said Cate, who heads Carat Interactive's blog practice. "We see it as something that goes on before the campaign," he said. "This is a way to get into the landscape and figure out the opportunities."
Doubters often point out that most blogs feature one person voicing his or her opinions to a smattering of readers. Yet some find them valuable for just that reason: because they represent a consumer's personal sounding board to a trusted circle. "The amount of data is increasing significantly because of blogs," said Jonathan Carson, CEO of BuzzMetrics, a New York firm that provides market research based on user-generated content on blogs, message boards and product-review sites.
To get usable research from the inchoate blogosphere, Umbria has focused on identifying gender and age range of bloggers, parsing language and other clues in posts to group them into demographic categories. Kaushansky said the company will push to identify bloggers by other characteristics, such as ethnicity. "As the blogosphere grows, it becomes that much more valuable and that much more representative of society as a whole," he said.
USA Networks plumbed blogs to figure out the best way to market the documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story in a way that appealed to both boxing fans and the general public. Using New Media Strategies, an Arlington, Va., online brand promotion firm, it found after the film's Sundance Film Festival debut considerable online buzz surrounding the issue of Griffith's possible homosexuality and how it factored into the film's climactic moment, when Griffith kills another boxer in the ring. USA decided to use its marketing to highlight the conversation of how sports and homosexuality co-exist. "It helped crystallize the fact that this is fertile ground to be explored further," said Alexandra Shapiro, vp of marketing and brand strategy at USA.