NEW YORK Outdoor power equipment manufacturer Yard-man is stretching its status as this year's official Nascar lawn mower provider to launch a Web site featuring racing champs Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray. They appear as avatars that users can spruce up with digital gear and audio.
The virtual alter egos will begin posting speedway news reports once the site goes live Feb. 14.
Also available will be a dozen or so other customizable characters, giving users the ability to create and festoon numerous avatars on the branded site.
As with the cartoon drivers, consumers can add a spoken message to be played back by their avatar upon electronic delivery. To do so, they have a number of choices, from recording an original message at a toll-free number or opting for a pre-recorded audio clip.
Is Yard-man concerned that consumers might direct their avatars to utter profanities?
"Absolutely it makes me nervous," said company director of marketing Tim Coughlin. "However, we need to give people the opportunity to speak their mind and be passionate about the sport."
"It's risky," conceded Adi Sideman, CEO of tech firm Oddcast, which powered the campaign. To minimize the chance of unsavory developments, Oddcast will monitor the site and keep an eye out for any objections flagged by the community.
Yard-man is hoping the viral effort will allow it to "break through the clutter without spending the $15-20 million to sponsor a Nascar team," said Coughlin. "We don't have the type of dollars to sponsor an entire season, but we wanted to have a game changer that's unique to the fans and the industry," he said.
The MTD-owned manufacturer of mowers, tractors and blowers pegged the effort in the low six figures, comparable to its total $150,000 U.S. ad spend.
CareerBuilder's success with Monk-e-Mail sparked Coughlin's enthusiasm for an avatar-fueled initiative in the first place. Rather than involve Yard-man's agency, Marcus Thomas, he contacted Monk-e-Mail's creator, Oddcast.
Based on "viral indicators" from Monk-e-Mail and other top Oddcast performers—including Purina's Doggie-Mail—Sideman noted that one in three users pass along ad messages, with 60 percent of recipients opening the e-mails and clicking through to the marketed site. By contrast, he reported, the open rate for direct mail campaigns hovers around 15 percent.
The fact that "brands like Yard-man and Nascar are embracing this new avatar technology is a good indicator that this is becoming increasingly mainstream," said Sideman. "Marketers are seeing more and more that user-generated content—mash-ups, viral marketing and in this case an avatar—is delivering on the promise of word-of-mouth marketing."
"The technology is just another way we can bring awareness to our brand and get [consumers] to buy more lawn mowers," said Coughlin.