Niche Online Marketers Venture Into Real World

NEW YORK On a Tuesday this spring, about 300 young men and women gathered after work for a somewhat unusual event: a pool party held inside a hotel bar in midtown Manhattan. Frolicking in the water with beach balls and paddling around the swim-up bar, they were treated to complimentary Sparks, a caffeinated malt liquor drink Miller acquired last year. The host of the party? Thrillist, a two-year-old e-mail newsletter for young, affluent urban professional men looking for nightlife and other lifestyle information.

The gathering was one of several efforts by advertisers to leverage small online properties that boast influential audiences into marketing programs that go beyond ad messages to include real-life events.

Live marketing events are nothing new. But many marketers consider these types of gatherings more valuable because they hold the promise of igniting buzz among important trendsetters.

“Parties like that give consumers an opportunity to discover the product,” said Fred Chapman, a regional sales director at Miller. “It’s less about in-your-face marketing because they’re there voluntarily.”

The relatively small audience—Thrillist has 115,000 subscribers, mostly in New York and Los Angeles—is still attractive to advertisers because of its cachet with influencers in the early to mid-20s demographic Sparks targets, noted Ashly Deleon, a marketing manager with Miller. “The reason we use niche media is word of mouth,” she said.

The Sparks bash is one of a handful of events Thrillist has hosted for advertisers, including a release party for the Baywatch DVD series, and tastings for Reyka vodka and Souza tequila. It plans to do about a half-dozen more over the next year. Other niche properties are also pushing into experiential efforts.

“We’re in a place where it’s easy for us to think we should just push information through the computer,” said Sascha Lewis, CEO of Flavorpill, a Web property for the latest, hippest goings-on in music and culture, which regularly extends Internet media buys with real-world events for advertisers such as Budweiser and Nokia. “But that real-life experience is so valuable, it’s inherent to human nature.”

Hair-care brand Redken turned to Flavorpill for a summer push. In addition to Web ads and a series of Webisodes it created, Flavorpill staged concerts in five cities that gave away samples of Redken’s Urban Experiment line of hair products. “It’s really about this target being the ones who are going to set the trends next for what hairstyles and products will be used,” said Molly Mansur, senior director of interactive marketing at Redken. “The events are a key part.”

Lewis predicts more advertisers will demand experiential programs that go beyond Web activities. It recently put on an after-party for Absolut following the Live Earth concert. “We feel we’re at the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “They’re still experimental. We feel like in a couple years time this will be more of the norm.”

More and more, this is the message from advertisers to DailyCandy, the e-publication dedicated to fashion and lifestyle tips for women. “When did it go out of style to buy ads? Nobody seems to want just a media program anymore,” said Alyson Racer, vp of sales. “Everyone wants what’s going to move their business in some way.”

That’s led DailyCandy to begin a movie-screening program for ad partners like Paramount Vantage. The company screened its users through a survey to find passionate moviegoers who visit the theater at least four times per month. This month, it will host screenings in New York and Los Angeles for groups to see The Kite Runner, the film adaptation of the popular Nicholas Sparks novel that is due for release in November.

“Once we engage a trendsetter audience, the breakout potential becomes greater,” said Bladimiar Norman, head of interactive marketing at Paramount Vantage.

The numbers reached through the events will likely be small, Norman admits, but reaching a “very affluent, trendsetting audience” can pay off with strong word of mouth, while more traditional media outlets can do the heavy lifting of mass awareness. “I’m always looking for fresh, creative ways to reach the audience and less from an advertising perspective,” he said.

For some brands, niche properties can present the most efficient way of finding a small group of consumers. That’s the thinking behind an upcoming program for Remy Martin’s Louis XIII high-end cognac, which can cost up to $1,800 per bottle. It has linked with exclusive, invitation-only social network aSmallWorld for a campaign that will supplement banner ads and a microsite with several events. Highly influential members will select up to 20 other members for a gathering at an exclusive locale, like an art gallery, for parties that include tasting the cognac. “The experience of this brand is not just seeing it but having a chance to sample it,” said Alan Schanzer, managing partner at MEC Interaction, which created the program.

While Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer does not want to get into the party-planning business over editorial, he says the ability to extend online ad buys into the real world helps it stand out from other, larger properties. “We’ve got a very specific audience that I don’t think anyone else is reaching as efficiently,” he said.

The downside is such programs end up taking a fair amount of time to construct on both sides. Thrillist has organized six events in the past year. And the ROI on them is still uncertain. “It’s very difficult to understand whether the event was responsible for a sales spike,” said Miller’s Chapman. “I don’t want to pretend we can measure that because we can’t.”

The niche properties, however, see the events as a key part of their differentiation. “There’s a million ways to reach women,” said DailyCandy’s Racer. “The distinction we have is the relationship we have with our audience.”