Dilbert, Xoom.com Sign Viral Marketing Pact

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Internet community site Xoom.com, San Francisco, is expected to debut a plan this week to transform America's legions of cubicle-bound Dilbert lovers into viral marketers for the popular comic strip.


Xoom's MightyMail unit signed a deal to give its members free e-mail bearing virtual "letterhead" with scenes from the often frustrating office life of Dilbert, the central character in a strip about the absurdities of corporate servitude. Rights to the strip are controlled by New York licensing and syndication company United Media, and users will be able to sign up through the www.unitedmedia.com site as well.


The deal is the first of six that Xoom hopes to close in the coming weeks. The point for Xoom is that it will make money as an e-commerce provider. MightyMail messages are designed to carry banner ads, links to virtual stores and other interactive bells and whistles.


"When we saw this product, we knew we had to buy it," said Xoom chairman/CEO Chris Kitze.


Xoom, which is slated to merge soon with Snap.com Inc. and several Net assets controlled by NBC, bought MightyMail for $25 million in May. Executives plan to bring together broadcast, e-commerce and portal services through the combined company, to be called NBCi.


MightyMail users can set up an account with secure log-in, mailboxes and composition pages similar to those offered by Yahoo or Hotmail. But they also will choose one of several letterhead designs wrapping images of Dilbert or other popular characters and celebrities around messages - in effect branding their e-mail.


Mail recipients receive hotlinks to message boards and photograph pages dealing with celebrities, for example, and they're also encouraged to sign onto an account themselves. The anticipated dynamic is viral: Netizens who share an interest in a popular brand will spread the word through the Web with no real effort on the part of Xoom's clients.


"Their fans will become their marketing department, and it's cheap for them to do that," said Jody Sherman, who previously was vice president of business development at MightyMail and now holds the same title at Xoom.


Sherman pitched MightyMail as a sort of market research weapon. The system tracks new sign-ups, in addition to links clicked by both senders and recipients of e-mail. Over time, user preferences will emerge, meaning Xoom's clients can test the appeal of different images before they spend money marketing their goods, Sherman said.


"You could rotate album covers through these letterheads, have fans send mail to their friends and ask in a survey, right in the letterhead, 'Which album cover do you like?' and fans can react to that right now, and you get real-time feedback," he said.


United Media will sell Dilbert merchandise, and the company hopes to boost the number of people reading the strip.


The company was tight-lipped about how much it plans to charge for MightyMail. Sherman said sites that want to offer the e-mail themselves might pay a monthly fee for each user of the service. Some companies will pay Xoom a portion of revenue generated through MightyMail's e-commerce links; others will pay for ad views or some combination of fees.


Sherman does not expect Dilbert fans to have problems opening the messages on their PCs. A one-sentence MightyMail message tested by DM News was 5.5K larger than a regular e-mail with the same number of words. n
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