By: Steve Outing
For most online users under 25 — and especially for teenagers — instant messaging (IM) is a way of life. While the average older user relies most on e-mail and the Web for communicating and receiving news and information of interest, for many high schools students, chatting with buddies using AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, or ICQ is the most important thing in their e-lives.
There are now hundreds of millions of instant message users. (AOL Instant Messenger alone has a reported 140 million registered users.) But only recently have efforts begun to use instant messaging for something other than person-to-person communication: marketing and as a content publishing platform.
News publishers should take note of the trend. Says online content and marketing expert Anne Holland, publisher of MarketingSherpa, “Anyone under 25 is going ape over this stuff. The future of publishing on the Internet is instant messaging.”
Become my buddy
Here’s how IM publishing works: Users of IM services create “buddy lists” of people they want to chat with, and when two online users who are on each others’ buddy lists want to communicate, they simply click on the other’s name, type a brief message, and then send it. The way that publishers can get into the act is by creating “buddies” of their own, and convincing users to add these corporate buddies to their buddy lists.
A two-year-old software company called ActiveBuddy is at the forefront of this e-publishing trend. The firm, with offices in New York and Silicon Valley in California, is doing some noteworthy work creating IM “agents” or “bots.” For example, ActiveBuddy recently created a buddy called ELLEgirlBuddy for Elle (a young women’s magazine). Elle promoted the IM buddy to its readership, and usage of ELLEgirlBuddy mushroomed through word of mouth (mostly among teen girls, who thought the electronic persona was cool enough to tell their friends about it).
ELLEgirlBuddy mimics having an IM chat with a live person, but in reality it’s an intelligent agent that instantly responds to questions. An IM user could message ELLEgirlBuddy with “What’s my horoscope for tomorrow? I’m a Capricorn,” or “What color hair do you have?” and the agent will return a chatty response. It’s programmed to be flip and humorous, and will address questions on fashion, beauty, entertainment, and other topics of interest to teen girls.
ELLEgirlBuddy will also include links to the ELLEgirl.com Web site, and might also include a short ad or promotion below the answer. The key is that it’s fun and informative in its answers, so the experience doesn’t feel like you’re just being hit up with promotional material.
ActiveBuddy spokesperson Emily Lenzner says that so far, marketers seem to be the furthest along in experimenting with using IM to reach potential customers. For example, her company created a buddy for New Line Cinema called RingMessenger to promote the film “Lord of the Rings.” Add that to your buddy list and you can ask such questions as “When will the second ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie appear in theaters?” and “What’s a hobbit?”
Such marketing probably has a limited lifespan for usage by any one online user. The novelty effect is such that after a few uses, most users will seldom “talk” to a bot buddy, or they’ll remove it from their buddy lists. Nevertheless, the numbers are impressive. A LindsayBuddy bot created on behalf of Warner Brothers to promote a new musical artist last year got more than a half million people to add it to their buddy lists, and LindsayBuddy received more than 38 million messages.
Think of the possibilities
Where IM publishing starts to get interesting for publishing companies is when you ponder its information and content possibilities. Lenzner points out that ActiveBuddy started out demonstrating its technology with an IM agent called SmarterChild (which has attracted about 7 million human IM buddies). SmarterChild is an IM buddy that you add to your IM list, and you can then ask it questions on news (“What are today’s top headlines?”), weather, sports scores, movie times, etc.
ActiveBuddy also maintains a baseball buddy, AgentBaseball, which will answer IM questions. For example, it can give you up-to-the-minute results from a New York Yankees game (“4th inning; Jeeter on 1st base; Spencer at bat, 1 ball, 2 strikes; NY 3, Toronto 1”). (The data comes from Sports Ticker.) Imagine office workers sitting at their desks and using an IM application to periodically check on the status of a game, because they can’t listen to the radio or watch the game on TV.
The company is hoping to encourage more news and information companies to develop buddy agents. (ActiveBuddy is primarily a software development company, and it hosts the agents on its servers on behalf of publishers.) It is doing some work with Reuters, and the wire service is an investor in ActiveBuddy. While the company doesn’t have a lot of publishing industry deals in place yet because the concept is so new, Lenzer says that sports media companies seem particularly interested, including a major sports league that wants to create a buddy agent.
Some other potential possibilities: weather buddy (which knows your postal code and gives you local conditions and forecast); stocks buddy (“How’s my portfolio doing right now?”); classified ads (“Any job openings today for cooks?”); schools buddy (“Is my school closed because of the snow storm?”); etc.
ActiveBuddy also has created IM buddy agents for eBay, to give online auction users a quick way to check on their bids, and the company is working with some online travel companies to offer IM buddy services that allow consumers to check on the status of flights.
Faster than the Web
You don’t have to look too deeply to notice that many of these IM buddy agents perform information tasks that could be done on the Web as well — getting sports scores, your local weather forecast, stock prices, etc. The difference is in speed and convenience. Instant messaging applications allow communication much faster than e-mail; buddy agents get you information faster, too.
Corporate IM buddies add instant messaging to the growing number of Internet platforms on which media companies can publish.
The concept of the corporate buddy should be of interest to news publishers for a couple of reasons. First, instant messaging is clearly the purview of the young Internet user. For a news company seeking to interact with a younger audience, utilizing IM buddies is worth exploring. (Of course, the content of such buddies has to be of interest to that age group; teens aren’t going to care much about getting weather forecasts via IM, but they might be attracted by more creative uses of corporate buddies like chatting with bot versions of celebrities. Don’t laugh; ActiveBuddy has found that such celebrity-simulation bots have attracted huge numbers of users.)
Secondly, corporate buddies expand the appeal of instant messaging beyond the young. Certainly people older than 25 use IM applications, but where IM is really big is with the young. If publishers create IM buddy agents that offer convenient access to news and information — such as stock-portfolio buddies and baseball-game buddies — older Internet users will gravitate to them because of the speed and convenience of buddy agents over getting the information from the Web or via e-mail.
How to make money
Sounds neat, but is there money to be made for news publishers from IM buddies? The principal revenue source is likely to be sponsorships and advertising, which can be appended to buddy answers. Ads must be short — just a few words — and must encourage IM users to click to go to an advertiser’s Web page. Lenzner says the most successful to date have been short ad phrases like “Win a free [whatever]!” She cites an experiment with the SmarterChild buddy where Keebler promoted a contest to win football game tickets, which generated a 6.5% clickthrough rate from the buddy’s IM answer to users — a far better result than the typical Web banner ad.
Of course, there’s no reason that an IM corporate buddy has to be free. A stock-portfolio buddy, for example, might be a service that people would pay for. (Think of IM not only on computers, but on wireless portable devices; a portable stock buddy would definitely be a candidate for a paid subscription.) Alternatively, a corporate buddy can simply serve as a marketing/referral tool for a publisher’s Web site — where the money is made.
If the idea of corporate IM buddies interests you, give them a try. Simply fire up AOL Instant Messenger and add some of the buddies mentioned in this column to your buddy list: AgentBaseball, SmarterChild, ELLEgirlBuddy, RingMessenger.
Letters to the Editor
My previous column, “News Sites Repeat Mistakes Of the Past,” brought in these letters:
The problem with interactivity
As a long-time journalist and spare-time Web developer dabbler, I read your critique of online newspapers with interest.
I agree with Nora Paul when she says that most news sites are ‘pretty damn boring,’ but I think that’s a function of poor design, not just lack of interactivity. Many newspaper home pages are a jumbled mess of text and images. Flashing ads, house promotion boxes, columnist photos and multiple sets of links are all wrapped around the information we’re trying to get people to read or look at. Often, your eyes don’t know where they’re supposed to look. That’s different from regular front pages, which are typically ad- and promotion-free. There are exceptions, such as the Observer Reporter Web site mentioned in your story. But a lot of papers have a long way to go in making their sites appealing visually.
As for the interactivity part, I love it in theory. But I see barriers, not the least of which is the consolidation of news sites by their corporate parents. A programmer in San Jose, Calif., is not going to take the time to write a little script so Sioux Falls readers can calculate their property tax increases. And the few online staffers in Sioux Falls who have not been shipped to the corporate online division are probably not going to have the time to build the nifty little interactive tools you envision.
Ironically, it may be the smaller papers — free to experiment and more in touch with their readers — that push the news industry further into the information age. I hope someone does.
San Jose Mercury News
Too ‘With It’
If I wanted ‘interactive’ instead of the news, I would head to fark.com or the like. When I want news, I want the news. Forget interactive. This is about as interactive as I wish to get.
As an editor for a publishing company out West, I know the pitfalls you can dig yourself (and fall into) when you try to be too … er… with it.
Do as I say, not as I …
“Um, Steve … it seems to me that your article, ‘News Sites Repeat Mistakes Of the Past,’ does the very thing it is criticizing. To me that says it (interactivity) is a great theory, proven difficult through practice.”
Other recent columns
News Sites Repeat Mistakes Of the Past, Wednesday, April 10
USC J-School To Teach Convergence To All, Wednesday, March 27
Interactive News Is Newspaper-Wide Effort In Spokane, Wednesday, March 13
News Sites Need To Get Flash-y, Wednesday, Feb. 27
Newspapers: Don’t Blow It Again, Wednesday, Feb. 13
Product Placement On Newspaper Web Sites?, Wednesday, Jan. 23
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