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Beyond E-Mail and Search: Instant Messaging and the Battle for Brand Effectiveness

Marketers agree that digital networks and media are profoundly changing the landscape of brand marketing. While radio and television fostered a golden age of consumer aggregation, now the Internet is going the other way – driving dis-aggregation where consumers can choose from a virtually unlimited number of ‘channels.’

Google indexes more Web pages than there are people on the entire planet. Blogging, RSS and podcasting promote a world of publishing where authors outnumber readers, viewers or listeners.

The Internet free-for-all is a double-edged sword: dis-aggregation gives freedom to individuals, and potentially offers new possibilities in targeted marketing, but makes media marketing planning and campaigning more challenging.

The overarching rallying cry as we close out WWWI – the first wave of the World Wide Web – is search. From the early ISP portals (remember Netcom?) to Yahoo, AltaVista, Excite, Ask Jeeves and Google, search has become the Internet consumer aggregation point.

Even eBay, a useful and effective marketplace, doubles as a fantastic vertical search mechanism. Search has a sort of lifeboat identity among marketers, the great hope for order out of chaos. Search will solve our aggregation and media buying problems. Vertical search will solve our targeting problems.

Search is a powerful aggregation and contextual linking tool and will continue to offer great value to marketers as digital networks mature.

Still, we should be careful not to view search as a panacea. While it is great for intercepting consumers with purchase interest and driving them to further evaluation, search isn’t very sticky; consumers don’t tend to hang out on search sites.

This combined with the inherent goal-directedness of search may limit how many and what types of messages can be put alongside or in the way of search without creating consumer frustration and resentment.

Additionally, search is typically a solitary pursuit. It’s difficult to replicate the experience of window-shopping with a friend and sharing enthusiasm for a product or service where purchase intent can naturally be converted into purchases.

Finally, the old saw about only 20 percent of the population being active information seekers probably holds up on the Internet as everywhere else. So is there an Internet marketing plan for the searchless?

Not surprisingly, marketers are experimenting with alternate aggregation points. One of the most promising is instant messaging.

Instant messaging’s topline credentials are strong. There are more than 100 million active IM accounts in the United States and IM has replaced e-mail as the standard communication mode for younger consumers. According to a 2004 survey by America Online, users keep their messengers open for more than three hours per day and spend at least an hour actively using the application.

Moreover, IM has compelling characteristics beyond raw reach:

· IM is sticky: It is always on and present even if the user is doing other things. And core IM users – kids through early 20s – spend a lot of time each day with IM, which is more than 60 minutes of active messaging.

· IM is behavioral: Because it builds on user profiles, IM can provide convenient filtering and presentation of information and media for all users – important for those who use search occasionally or infrequently. IM offers high measurability because it can accrete opt-in user profile and behavior information.

· IM is personal: It offers a win-win for brand marketers and IM users by encouraging user identification. Skins, emoticons and sounds are just the beginning. Personalized elements can carry brand messages and cues, while letting users say who they are to their friends.

· IM is real-time, real-life: This is a channel that lets brands reach potential customers in the act of sharing interests and recommendations when emotions are positively engaged in purchase intent. IM’s opportune message delivery recalls television’s halcyon when the family would gather round the set to watch favorite shows, or even has the magic of a window-shopping stroll.

IM brings people together to share their interests, positioning it as a prime platform for interest-based communities, which are natural aggregation and targeting points for brand marketers. Professional marketing is not only tolerated, but also welcomed in communities where it is seen as a legitimate member and sponsor.

In essence, IM catches people in the act of being tuned in and offers a win-win environment for brands aligned with their interests. This ought to give forward-thinking marketers something they can tune into as well.

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