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IQ News: Chat's Challenge

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Advertisers Find Risks And Rewards In Online Chatter.
Earlier this year, a Moore, Okla., man posted the following request on a cyber bulletin board: "looking for that special real blonde . . . you know who you are) :) Send me a picture of your favorite dream. Maybe you can watch a few videos and get the IDEAS."
When compared to the explicit dialogue that has made private chat areas on America Online so popular, the Oklahoman's submission may seem tame. But considering that it was posted, and remains today, on Anheuser-Busch's "Bud Boards" on www.budweiser.com, the message raises questions about the risks advertisers take with their Web sites, and their reputations, when they permit loyal constituents to sound off on whatever they want to.
Still, from Ralph Lauren to Items International's renegade footwear brand, Airwalk, to Mexicana Airlines, chat and bulletin boards are becoming increasingly visible components of advertisers' online marketing arsenal. There are plenty of reasons why. For a relatively small investment, the platforms keep surfers in one spot interacting with other folks that share the same interests. More importantly, the audience is spending quality time with the brand that few other activities, online or off, can replicate.
However, a commitment to chat, bulletin boards or both requires vigilance on the part of the advertiser. A-B's Bob Macauley says he has personally spent "ridiculous amounts of time" patrolling the Bud Boards and the once-active Bud chat area looking for inappropriate postings that include offensive language, chatter from underaged drinkers and allusions to irresponsible drinking.
"We try to recognize the fact that these are all supposed to be adults," says Macauley, senior manager, entertainment and interactive marketing. "It's got to be pretty overt. If it gets into any perversions then yeah, we're going to take care of it."
In the case of the Moore, Okla., man's posting, the subject matter, while suggesting the rants of a smut dealer, was deemed too innocuous to delete. "If it's not something that's overt, is it fair for us to make that editorial decision?" Macauley reasons.
Despite a somewhat liberal policy on bulletin boards, A-B was forced to take a hard-line attitude toward the chat area on the site, pulling it down eight months after it launched in Nov. 1995. Unfortunately, the popular area's dialogue consistently became "inappropriate and insensitive," according to Macauley. However, because it was also a hit, A-B is looking to resurrect it should the company find a capable filtering device.
Prurient messages aside, a more immediate concern to marketers is whether free-flowing dialogue can tarnish a brand's reputation.
For that reason, all consumer comments submitted to sites for Brown-Forman's spirits brands Southern Comfort, Canadian Mist and Early Times are read first, cleaned up if needed and then posted. The reason for such vigilant policing, according to Bob Hausladen, vice president and marketing director for Canadian Mist, is to ensure the site is in keeping with the mind-set of the brand's core over-40 audience. "One of the reasons we stayed away from unregulated [dialogue] is that it's still our site. If the chat that goes on there is offensive, it's our brand" that people will associate it with, he observes.
A-B's Macauley says he realized that with all the Bud-bashing by micro-brew afficionados floating about the Internet, the company could open itself up to potential attacks on its home turf in cyberspace. This concern became especially pointed when the company launched an ad offensive last year suggesting that Boston Beer Co. might not be as wholesome a brewer as it claims. As fans of Boston Beer's Samuel Adams brew voiced their displeasure on budweiser.com, A-B discovered that Bud loyalists spoke up on the site on behalf of Budweiser, eliminating the need for the company to intervene.
Molson Breweries has had similar experiences. Brian Flanagan, an Internet supervisor for the brewer, monitors the www.molson.com site for postings that are racist, homophobic or sexist. However, he has found that he also can rely on what he calls his "eyes and ears" repeat visitors who stop by the site regularly. Such users alert him to any potential red flags, such as underage visitors, in the site's chat areas.
But there's more than embarassment to face if a marketer is inattentive to what visitors post. As content providers, advertisers may face legal issues that their counterparts at such online hangouts as America Online don't. Legally, these entities are "passive conduits" that resemble phone companies more than publishers. Therefore, they could be granted more protection from the courts should the dialogue become racy, says Linda Goldstein, a partner with law firm Hall Dickler Kent Friedman and Wood in New York. And, since advertisers' Web sites deal with less traffic than an Internet service provider, advertisers could be perceived by the courts as being better able to monitor content, says Goldstein. "You leave yourself potentially exposed [to litigation] if you don't."
Such concerns have done little to dampen some marketers' enthusiasm for turning their sites into social venues. Interaction is an obvious ingredient with brands "that are trying to play in the lifestyle arena," says Andrew Shakman, president and CEO of CyberSight, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based interactive agency for such companies as Stolichnaya Vodka and Molson Breweries. Rather than simply allowing advertisers to extol a product's virtues or allow visitors to exchange jokes, chat and bulletin boards give marketers invaluable feedback.
A-B's Macauley enjoys the opportunity to get unsolicited feedback from visitors on topics such as the last Bud Bowl promotion. Molson's highly interactive site has gathered a membership base of 35,000 to 40,000 registrants and an average of more than 5000 daily visitors during its first two years. Molson's Flanagan attributes the steady traffic flow to chat. "We're a bit more democratic than most corporate sites," he says. "We use user input to drive a considerable amount of what we're doing."
For online marketers, talk is becoming valuable, not cheap.