GM Canada promotes Pontiac Vibe via Web 2.0 enabled scavenger hunt

What do the BlackBerry’s Pearl 8130 Smart Phone and the 2009 Pontiac Vibe have in common?

Hardly anything. But the former was used to promote the latter at a General Motors Canada event that showcased viral marketing in action.

The event involved a cross-country “scavenger hunt” using a variety of Web 2.0 technologies.

Rather than promote the event and products via traditional media –
such as print, radio, billboards and radio – GM is banking on viral marketing to generate online interest in their campaign.

This marketing strategy, according to Canadian marketing experts, is fast becoming the preferred option for promoting certain products and services.

Viral marketing techniques employ pre-existing social networks to generate brand awareness through word-of-mouth endorsement.

Promotional tools include e-mails and online ads or Web 2.0 media such as video clips, interactive Flash-based games, blogs, wikis, text messages and digital photos.

The GM launch dubbed, Catch the Vibe, essentially involved a series of four two-person teams, each driving a Pontiac Vibe.

The teams – made up of journalists covering different areas – raced around town to complete tasks or search for objects and landmarks laid out by the organizers.
To help them search for clues, complete challenges and record their progress, contestants had to access Internet-based tools and services with the Pearl 8130 device.

“This is really different. There are absolutely no GM personnel in the event and you can’t find any ad in the papers about the race,” said Chris Chase, an Ottawa-based automotive journalist for CanadianDriver, an online car magazine.

Chase also was my co-driver in our failed bid to loosen our team’s firm hold on the bottom place during this week’s Toronto-leg of the race.

And believe me we tried. There are videos out there in the Net showing us doing crazy things like blow drying our hair in public and selling street meat in Yorkville.

Chase, who has been to numerous tests drives from makers of cars ranging from Hyundais to Porsches, said new model campaigns are typically accompanied by lots of media splash. “In this case everything seems to be happening online.”

For a whole day we used the Web browser on our BlackBerry to research clues, took photos and videos with the smart phone and posted the photos and clips on Flickr and YouTube, or communicated our progress to the organizers and online supporters via Twitter, a free social networking and micro blogging site.

One crucial component of the contest was that points were also given for generating online supporters.

Teams are supposed to recruit people to log onto the site and express support for them.

“We wanted something that the general public could participate in and we wanted to explore the impact that viral communications could have on a program of this nature,” said Tony LaRocca, product communications manager for GM Canada.

The Vibe and Web 2.0 are a perfect match, he said. “While the Vibe also sells well across the entire age spectrum, its largest customer group is in the 25-35-year-old range. We all know the younger demographic lives actively in the social media environment.”

Typical product launches focused on providing auto journalists an opportunity to test drive the car.

By opening the race to writers from different fields, GM effectively widened its market. By providing online access to the event, LaRocca said, the company also achieved “great engagement with the general public.”

To date, the Vibe’s online campaign site has attracted more than 4,000 unique visitors and in excess of 2,000 registered online team supporters since the event began on March 24.

While some surveys indicate that marketers appear to be slow in catching onto to viral marketing, the principal of one Toronto-based online marketing firm says the technique has proven very effective for certain types of products.

“Viral marketing is becoming more accepted in the mainstream as companies discover that social networks are ideal for building interest on certain types of products,” according to Gary Thomas, owner and creative director of Crush Inc.

Crush’s campaign for The Gum Thief, the latest book by Canadian fiction writer Douglas Copeland known for his explorations on unexpected cultural shifts, is a case in point.

Crush launched a campaign in which key target groups included online bloggers as well as YouTube’s youthful audience.

The idea was to generate public interest in a book which tells of the unlikely friendship between a divorced alcoholic and a young woman in her Goth phase.

“The book leant itself to this type of medium and audience,” said Thomas.

The blog entries eventually earned The Gum Thief a nod by the New York Times while inventive video clips which featured animated word collages accompanied by readings of some passages from the book, have earned upwards of 200,000 hits since launching in YouTube last Fall.

While Crush has no access to metrics that would link online activity to actual book sales, Thomas said Random House informed them that The Gum Thief is so far Copeland’s largest selling work.

“Random House strongly believes this is due to the online campaign.”

A book campaign using traditional methods would have been more complicated, expensive and harder to track, Thomas noted.

Apart from the original art work, the project would have required numerous advanced discussions with media outlets and arrangements for talk show schedules. Print ads would have costs tens of thousands of dollars while TV spots could run into the hundred thousand dollar range.

“With The Gum Thief, aside from the art work distribution was generally free,” Thomas said.

This is one the chief benefits of using online viral marketing, says Nick Dumitru, creative director of Basis, an Internet marketing firm in Toronto.

“You don’t need to spend much on advertising because the people come to you.”

But getting people in social networks to view your ads is harder that it sounds, Dumitru warns.

“Your campaign must not let on that it’s an ad, because people in sites like Facebook are averse to that.”

Rather than selling to a potential customer, Dumitru said, marketers should concentrate on engaging them first.

For example, the spots might not even have anything to do with the original product or service but could feature some inventive widget or game that will attract Web users.

Through this initial engagement, marketers can then offer people a choice to log onto a site showing information about the product.

Marketers must also be careful in selecting the social networks and communities that they target, Dumitru added. “With the number of networks and communities out there, it’s essential to keep your ears to the ground to find out what applications and networks are hot.”

Marketers must also ditch the idea of traditional ads when they use online tools, says Thomas of Crush.

Online viewers do not like to see poster-type ads or long text similar to those found in print media or flashy 30-second clips that smell of mega-advertising buck, he said.

The point is to get people recommending the online link to their friends.

“In most instances, you don’t need to impart information. You have to concentrate in inventive means of getting the people engaged enough so that they their friends about their experience and get others hooked.”

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