Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Online marketing that targets children: What do you think?

Marketing to children—particularly food items—is nothing new. Athlete and celebrity tie-ins, product placement in movies, commercials during cartoons, kid-friendly packaging, toys with purchase, placing product on the lower shelves in grocery stores, etc. are effective strategies that have been in place for decades. Now, however, there’s an advertising medium that captures its audience—children—for as long or longer than one of those time-share sales pitches that you have to sit through in exchange for a free trip to the Bahamas: online games.

General Mills, for example, has a game in which “BuzzBee,” the Honey Nut Cheerios mascot, can be dragged and dropped into cartoon panels to create custom kid comic strips, which then can be emailed to friends. There’s also a BuzzBee spelling bee game. The games are designed to reach children and advertise products, according to the companies that design them, in a fresh and new interactive platform. Those opposed to using the web in such a way, however, say the technique is just a click or two away from subliminal advertising.

The concept of mixing church and state—i.e. blurring the lines between editorial and advertising—is also nothing new. We’re bombarded with print advertising designed to look like editorial and editorial that’s becoming so stylish that it resembles advertising. There are television pundits with their own agendas who are projected into our homes under the guise of objective news shows. There’s Google pay-per-click versus websites that are found organically. Even blogs may offer objective and useful info, but many times are connected to websites selling products or services.

The difference, however, is that, as adults, most of us have judgment enough to recognize when we’re being marketed to versus when we’re being handed objective information. We take in the two forms of information with separate filters. Kids, for the most part, don’t because the frontal lobe of the brain—that part that controls judgment—doesn’t fully develop until the mid- to late twenties. This is why there are many laws and restrictions regarding advertising to children.

As a whole, the staffers at the Ryan William’s Agency don’t believe the BuzzBee games and those like them are evil. They’re creative, centered around learning and represent a new avenue in which to advertise. In fact, similar forms of online advertising are currently being used in the adult arena. Zynga, the Cali-based social gaming company that has developed campaigns for the likes of American Express, Nestle and McDonalds, currently awards players of Facebook’s “Farmville” who build their farms to a certain size a Farmer’s Insurance blimp. In its game “CafĂ© World,” you can win free Coca Colas. Prefer “Mafia Wars?” Loot from the movie Green Hornet is up for grabs in that popular game.

It’s an interesting time for advertising. Businesses now have far more options about where to spend their ad dollars, and it doesn’t look like the race for creating new ones is going to slow down anytime soon. As an advertising agency, we’re excited at the prospect of the creation of new venues for communicating business messages. However, we’re also well aware of the legal and social concerns attached to each.

We’d love to hear what you think about companies using online games to advertise to children. We invite you to post your comments as a parent, as an advertiser or just as yourself.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

We’re a little slow to respond to the advent of QR codes, but they’re coming.

QR codes—those funky looking matrix bar codes you see in magazines and on business cards, signs and direct mail, etc.—have been around for a while and are quite popular in some areas abroad. But stateside we’re still catching up with the phenomenon. QR, which stands for “quick response,” technology was developed in 1994 by Toyota to ID new cars, and the technology quickly spread to practically every industry under the sun, from publishing to dry cleaning.

Why? Because, when scanned by a smart phone with a QR code reader installed, this tiny block can link your Internet browser to all kinds of information, whether text, URLs, images, you name it. So, if you’re a magazine publisher, for example, and have a 5,000-word feature story about Barbados and only room enough in your publication for 1,200 words, you’re in luck. You put the additional 3,800 words on your website, along with the 500 photo outtakes, a “Win a Trip to Barbados” contest, lists of the island’s top hotels and restaurants, banner ads and links to the websites of your top travel-related advertisers, and voila, your modest magazine story is now a Library of Congress-sized wealth of information.

Maybe you run a boutique and in your display window you have a few pieces of sculpture by a popular local artisan. The three pieces you do have in stock are nice, but not quite what the window shopper had in mind. A quick scan of the aptly placed QR code instantly reveals not only the artist’s bio and images of his extensive line of sculptures, but also that you can have any one or more of the pieces drop shipped to the customer in one day. Hmmmm, suddenly this odd little block, peppered with dots and squiggles and doodads, is becoming increasingly clear.

Too space-age progressive to even contemplate now for your business? Think again. According to a recent study by Arbitron, smartphone ownership has tripled in the last two years, and by the end of 2011, it’s expected that 31 percent of all U.S. cell phone users will own a smartphone. There was a time when businesses “did just fine” without email and the Internet too. Ready or not, here it comes.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting creative with your brainstorming. Hey, what a Great Idea!

Last week an RWA staffer was chatting with a colleague who was commiserating about a shipping problem at her company. ‘How big of an issue can a bit of mail be?’ vaguely crossed our staffer’s mind. Well, apparently this was a doozy, involving three separate departments that were now at odds within her company. The issue wasn’t black and white and so the staffer, thinking creatively, suggested she hold a brainstorming session with each of the departments concerned.

“This involves shipping perishables cross country,” she said, “not generating creative advertising concepts.” Our staffer went back to sipping mojitos and let the matter drop, pondering the question of why this particular friend was… well… so darn pigheaded.

While brainstorming isn’t new, a lot of managers think the concept is reserved solely for creatively inclined businesses. It’s not. Brainstorming can yield creative solutions, certainly, but the type of issue about which the ideas are generated is practically irrelevant. The key is in the process. Successful brainstorming needs to have some structure, however, or your participants might get lost in a downpour of new ideas and lose focus of what the original brainstorming was about.

Here are a few tips on successful brainstorming:

1. Put someone in charge. Brainstorming involves a facilitator to conduct the meeting and keep the group on task—although an effective facilitator knows when to let the group run in order to encourage the free exchange of ideas and maintain a relaxed, freeform atmosphere.

2. Remember the golden rule: there are no bad ideas. Humor, off-the-wall concepts, impossibilities, even wishful thinking—to a point, of course—are all in bounds during a successful brainstorming session. Because while one member of the team suggests adding eight more hours to the 24-hour day, another is taking that impossible cue and molding it into a more realistic idea that might never have come about if not for the clowning of the original team member.

3. Make sure the brainstorming group is varied. Ten board directors brainstorming about a shipping issue wouldn’t be nearly as effective as a mix of employees from shipping clerk to company president because each will have a unique set of concerns that the other might not have even considered. The size of the group also may vary, but generally more is better than less—again, up to a point.

4. Time your meeting for maximum creative brainflow. Brainstorming at 9:00 a.m. on a Monday when folks are still shaking the cotton candy out of their heads or at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday when they’re chomping at the bit to get to happy hour is not recommended. Also, letting the participants know what the session will be about a day or two prior to the meeting is a good tactic. The phrase “sleep on it” is a very real concept as the subconscious is constantly working even when we’re not deliberately thinking about something.

5. State what the issue is at the outset of the meeting. Explanation should be as detailed as possible, but not lead to any particular solution that may already be under consideration. The group may have questions to further clarify the issue, answers to which may not be known and so become part of the process.

Lastly, if you Google “Brainstorming,” there are lots of guides and rules for the most effective way to run a session, and some of them might be quite useful in your particular situation. At RWA, we tend to fly by the seat of our pants. But, hey, we’re creative people and we do rein it back in if the subject turns to space aliens or if staffers’ attention shifts from the meeting to their smart phones. That’s when we bring out the rubber chickens. We’ll blog about that later.

Happy brainstorming!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Advertising jargon: Is what your agency saying Brilliant or just B.S.?

Last week the RWA team attended two seminars on marketing with Social Media both conducted by advertising professionals. Although the topics were the same – how to get better results with social media – the presentations couldn’t have been more different, leaving us to wonder were these two companies talking about the same thing?

Herein lies the conundrum with social media. Everyone’s talking the talk, but half the time you can’t figure out what they’re saying. It sure sounds impressive, but is it Brilliant or just a bunch of B.S.?

Our first seminar was a phone seminar with two hosts: one an advertising professional, the second a client who had used this professional to build his business through social media. They spoke very conversationally about their social media strategy, execution and results, then gave some great tips for boosting social media results. At the end of the presentation, they fielded questions from callers – many of them not advertising professionals – and answered them directly, patiently explaining concepts that those new to social media might not fully understand. They took the time to reiterate key items such as integrating keywords into everything you put out there and creating as many backlinks as you can. We “walked away” thinking it was an hour well-spent.

That evening, our RWA team also attended a cocktail party where another group of advertising professionals spoke on the same topic. We were the only advertising people in the room; the rest of the crowd was made up of business owners and managers. Shortly after the presentation began, I watched the eyes of these business professionals slowly start to glaze over. Yes, the two men at the front of the room were talking about social media, but with the amount of industry jargon being thrown their way, the audience could not decipher what they were saying. Even our RWA team that works in the social media sphere on a daily basis had a hard time following the trail of buzzword breadcrumbs. At the end of the presentation, the presenters asked for questions, but the audience was simply too intimidated to ask any. This may have been the strategy all along, though. Their presentation was peppered with “If you need help, call us” comments. Subliminal advertising at its best.

Like all industries, advertising has its jargon, those fancy-dancy words that we like to sneak into conversations just to make ourselves sound impressive. After all, we are in a creative industry; you have to expect a little razzle-dazzle. But, when your advertising agency starts speaking in tongues and things get lost in translation, you might want to look elsewhere. After all, it’s not brain science. It’s just advertising.