Creating online buzz
Aguilera Web marketers got tough to cut through online clutter

Although today chart topping pop diva Christina Aguilera is an international star, when her first single "Genie in a Bottle" came out in early 1999, it was by no means certain that this would be the case.

To help stack the deck in her favor, as part of her initial marketing campaign, RCA records got Electric Artists, an Internet guerilla marketing firm to pay a group of key music fans with incentives such as free tickets, CDs, T-shirts and a chance to meet the star. The 1,500 music fans, were targeted specifically because they were likely to spread the work about Aguilera on the Web, and create a buzz that would boost record sales.

The fans were identified in chat rooms and news groups such as those of another teeny-bopper in the same genre: Britney Spears. The campaign was part of the reason that Aguilera's album made its debut at number one on the Billboard charts.

"The problem we were facing was that people were hearing (Aguilera's) single on the radio, but since she was not well known at the time, they could not identify her as the artist," said Mark Schiller, CEO, of Electric Artists.

The Aguilera campaign may have been a great success, but it poses an ethical problem. Is it misleading advertising, for paid spokesmen, acting as agents for the singer, (whether directly or indirectly) to pose as unpaid groupies - especially when they are marketing to children?

"The question you raise is a good one. We have to very careful about marketing to children." said Schiller. "We did not pay those fans, and we did not ask them to talk about Aguilera online, so that question does not apply our campaign."

Whether or not giving $150 of free merchandise to young music fans constitutes paying them, may not cross the line, but if it doesn't it is pretty close. The practice is a sign of the lengths companies must go to make an impression online.

Jupiter Communications, a new economy research firm, compiled a case study on the Aguilera campaign as an example of how tough Web marketing is getting. "It's getting harder to cut through online advertising clutter," said Marissa Gluck, an Jupiter analyst. "While the Internet is quickly becoming a mass medium, the number of ads that users are being exposed to is also climbing."

Although Internet penetration into North American homes and the amount of hours that users are spending online continue to increase, so too are the number of marketers trying to reach those eyeballs. It's creating a bit of a speed bump in the industry, as companies struggle to find optimal Web strategies.

"There have been some questions raised on Wall Street about continued Net ad growth," said Gluck, a New Yorker, who was in town last week to address an industry conference. "But when advertisers are asked which media they plan to increase spending on, 73 per cent said the Internet."

Ironically, as Gluck was making those comments, AOL chairman Steve Case was telling analysts in a conference call that AOL failed to increase its $3 billion advertising and E-commerce backlog from the previous quarter, although the total was up from $2 billion at the same time last year.

The AOL ad backlog is comprised of sales made, but not yet included into revenues. The fact that the backlog is stagnant casts a pall on growth estimates for the industry as a whole, because AOL sites are one of the largest advertising platforms on the Web.

"There is a shakedown going on, and marketers do need to work harder, but we are not altering our forecasts," said Gluck, who continues to predict that U.S. online advertising will triple to a staggering $16.5 billion by 2005. "AOL bookings are flat because they are reducing the duration of advertising contracts to focus more on short term deals."

The upshot of all the uncertainty about the best way to position brands on the Internet, is that companies are trying to figure out on the fly which techniques work best. So although the Aguilera Net campaign may have been a little aggressive, the boundaries are not all that clear as to what is acceptable and what isn't.

The problem is that many alternative Net marketing tactics are not working that well. Banner ads and spam E-mail are seeing lower responses. It's also hard to see a future for "pop-ups,"-- those annoying advertising windows that obstruct the user's view, forcing them to click the window closed, before they can continue navigating the site.

So where to put online ad dollars? Gluck believes that banners will continue to be the backbone of Net advertising, particularly when they are placed in conjunction with ads in other media such as print and television, as part of an integrated campaign. Other options include streaming audio, video and more highly target direct mail campaigns.


Photo caption: Christina Aguilera's promoters paid fans with incentives such as free tickets, CDs, T-shirts and a chance to meet the star so they would talk about her in entertainment chat rooms. (Use photo #224311 or # 224310, which are in the business browser)


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