Is Social Media Killing the Campaign Microsite?

NEW YORK Digital advocates often proclaim the imminent death of the 30-second spot, but the interactive industry might now be witnessing the demise of its own version of the commercial: the campaign microsite.

The growth of social media is causing marketers to realize they cannot expect consumers to always seek them out. Web widgets and video-sharing tools make it easy for any user to take content that formerly might have lived only on a brand site with them wherever they go. And social media sites help them share that content with friends.

“We really believe in fishing where the fish are,” said Carol Kruse, vp of global interactive marketing at Coca-Cola. “The old model is to build your own site, then spend media dollars to bring them there.”

Coca-Cola brand Sprite last week introduced its newest destination to interact with consumers on the Web. But rather than roll out a dedicated site, the soft drink debuted a customizable animated character called Sprite Sips on Facebook’s newly launched brand pages. At the Sprite Sips page, users can watch videos, listen to music and start discussions. Unlike a standalone site, the Sprite Sips page is linked into the social network, broadcasting to users’ friends their affinity for the brand. It ties into the Sprite Yard, the brand’s foray into mobile social networking.

Dove, Chase and Verizon also have developed pages, which are free to advertisers. Development costs are also lower. Coke bypassed its agencies for Sprite Sips, working with Facebook and a five-person team of freelance application developers.

To be sure, campaign microsites may be a staple of the “old model,” but they are by most accounts not facing extinction—although their role will probably be diminished from star to player in a cast of channels that also includes MySpace, YouTube and widgets. The idea is to spread content far and wide to find audiences wherever they are.

“It’s now fighting with social media and online advertising,” said Mat Zucker, executive creative director of, an Omnicom digital shop. “It’s hard to know where to spend your money.”

The shift of younger audiences to social networking is causing some brands to rethink the need for a microsite altogether. After all, MySpace has 100 million users and Facebook another 50 million. MySpace has been the official home of several youth-oriented movies since 20th Century Fox created a page for last year’s John Tucker Must Die. Recent movies Sydney White and Mr. Woodcock relied on MySpace pages rather than standalone sites. With a MySpace profile instead of a microsite, Fox agency Deep Focus was able to turn the John Tucker presence into more than a place for fans to see trailers and download wallpaper. Instead, it was the home for the movie’s titular character and interacted with MySpace profiles for other characters in the film and even fans who “friended” him.

“We had interplay going on that matched up to the plot,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus. “Because it was an ever-changing thing, people kept coming back.”

Deep Focus extended that approach to promote HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. After deciding to offer fans a chance to watch a preview episode, Deep Focus recommended against centering the campaign on a microsite. Instead, the episode first debuted on MySpace, followed by release through a dozen other video sites. acted as the official destination, but most views came from affiliate sites or personal Web pages that had embedded MySpace video players, Schafer said.

Even one of the most famous microsites, Burger King’s Subservient Chicken, probably would not go that route today, according to Rick Webb, chief operating office of The Barbarian Group, the independent Boston digital shop that created it in 2004. Instead, he said he’d suggest something through Instant Messenger, a social network or video game to reach young males.

The rise of the microsite as the catchall was due in part to marketers looking at the Web as simply an add-on to its traditional media campaigns, Webb said. But for brands looking to reach a young demographic, the Web has now evolved to the point where it is easier to find them in places like MySpace. “We know where they are on the Web now,” Webb said.

As a result, Barbarian Group, which has built its reputation crafting microsites, has moved away from them. Instead, the “Beer Canon” campaign for client Milwaukee’s Best relied on viral videos that lived on YouTube. “It was really hard for us because [microsites] were our bread and butter,” Webb said. “But we know it’s often not right for the clients.”

What’s more, in a world where content is often found through Google, microsites with short shelf lives tied to campaigns have the disadvantage of getting low ranks in search results, said Adam Lavelle, chief strategy officer at iCrossing, a digital agency in New York. “I don’t understand how, long term, [a microsite] builds brand equity, and with search I don’t see that having long-term visibility,” he said.

However, the microsite is still top of mind in many campaigns because of the conditioning of agencies to “create objects,” said Colleen DeCourcy, chief digital officer at TBWA Worldwide. “If you’re going to throw up a microsite, it better have reason to be,” she said. “There are all kinds of forms for things to take.”

Not everyone is convinced the microsite is ready for retirement. Mark Kingdon, CEO of Organic, an Omnicom shop, says efforts by brands to go beyond messaging will not lead them away from microsites. “I actually see the opposite happening,” he said. “Clients are asking for rich and immersive experiences in which to showcase their brands.”

For Kruse, the new options come at a time when companies like Coke are thinking more strategically about their digital initiatives, rather than looking at them as add-ons to traditional media. “We’re building a network of experiences,” she said.