Agencies help clients use free Internet media

February 26, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Marketing, public relations and advertising agencies are discovering they can use free mass communication Web sites on the Internet for their clients' messages — but it takes communication skill and creativity to be effective.

Late last year the Radio City Rockettes went on a national tour, performing in arenas such as the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids. The dance troupe's parent company, Madison Square Garden Entertainment, hired agencies at each location; here it was Wondergem Consulting. The agencies publicized and promoted the Rockettes, including promotional visits by some of the dancers to Grand Rapids in September and early November, prior to the two nights of performances at the Van Andel Arena in late November.

Kate Washburn, director of media services at Wondergem, said some members of the staff went to New York to meet with the Madison Square Garden Entertainment people at the start of the project.

"We asked them about social media, and what they were doing in that area, and they really weren't doing anything yet. It was kind of a new thing for them," said Washburn.

According to Washburn, it was a young PR associate at Wondergem, Lynsey Roumell, who came up with the idea to put a video on youtube.com in advance of the first visit by Rockettes in September.

The video, "Let's Kick It, Grand Rapids," started with an exuberant intro by Mayor George Heartwell followed by a lot of shots of people in Grand Rapids demonstrating how high they could kick. The comical video made many viewers aware of the fact that real Rockettes were going to give a free dance lesson to the public in Rosa Parks Circle one afternoon in September, which was part of the new outdoor entertainment sponsored by the Downtown Alliance.

"When we had put together that video and then shared it with (Madison Square Garden Entertainment), they thought that was pretty cool," said Washburn. The video "really wasn’t that expensive and very quickly done."

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter also can be valuable communication tools to reach a lot of people fast. Twitter, especially, is touted for its ability to tell people around the world what you are doing right now, in a just a few words — and then update it every few minutes from your cell phone.

Twitter is so hot, in fact, that one West Michigan politician accidentally found himself on the hot seat after using Twitter in early February. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the head of the U.S. House intelligence committee, uses Twitter to update his public and he reported on his presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, which caused the Pentagon to get very uptight about the release of real-time information it considered sensitive.

Seyferth and Associates, a public relations agency in Grand Rapids, recently used both Facebook and Twitter to help the Ottawa County Health Department get the word out to 21-year-old college students at GVSU and Hope College regarding the dangers and legal risks of providing alcohol to their underage friends. Stephanie VanDerKooi, a health educator at the department, said they had a total budget of about $10,000 to run the campaign. That included the design and purchase of about 1,200 T-shirts featuring a cartoon character created by the Seyferth firm.

VanDerKooi said the Health Department had learned that some adult students in the 21-24 age range did not seem to be aware of the legal consequences of supplying younger students with booze. Andrea Byl, a member of the Seyferth staff, said they set up a Facebook account for a cartoon character they dubbed Sam Minor, whose slogan is, "Dude, that's not cool. Supplying alcohol to minors is just lame."

Ginny Seyferth said her agency has a 12-person "market activation street team." The group was sent to a GVSU homecoming game tailgating party to give away the T-shirts bearing Sam and the slogan. To get a shirt, a student had to give his or her e-mail address. The e-mail addresses were used to request that those people become Sam's “friend” on his Facebook page. About 300 students did so.

"Sam has his … own friends, and then the friends have their own friends. … Sam, now, could be friends with people all over the world just because of the 300 friends" that were gleaned from the T-shirt giveaway, said Seyferth.

Seyferth said it was a very targeted campaign aimed at a limited audience, and it was known that virtually all of the audience used social networking sites.

"It doesn't mean that billboards aren’t necessary any more, but reaching people in their lifestyle" is now possible via the Internet, she said.

"There are multiple channels of social media," she said, and "everybody is a reporter."

Sam Minor also has a Twitter account, created by the Seyferth staff.

Nick Wasmiller, a senior account executive at Seyferth, said Twitter is very applicable in media relations, as well, because a quick post on Twitter can reach many reporters who now have Twitter accounts (which cost nothing to sign up for).

As a public relations agency, Seyferth and Associates generates revenue from hourly consulting services, while conventional advertising agencies make a significant amount of money through "media buys" for its clients. Seyferth was asked if advertising agency media buys have been reduced by the use of social networking sites, rather than direct mail or print or broadcast media.

"You'd have to ask an ad agency. I'm sure it is," said Seyferth.

But the challenge for PR agencies is that the Internet now has so many different channels of communication, and they come and go.

"The difference today is, consumers are segmented into more little groups. They are fragmented; there is no helicopter approach" that can reach an entire population, she said.

The potential for negative misinformation appearing on the Internet can actually create business for public relations firms. Now, said Seyferth, PR professionals have to monitor what is on the Internet about their clients "and make sure what is out there is accurate."

A 16-year-old boy with a brand new driver's license soon considers himself an expert driver, and anyone who puts something on the Internet usually considers himself or herself an expert Internet communicator. That reality presents opportunities for agencies whose clients already have Web sites or have tried using social networking sites.

Mark Tanis, owner of the 20-year-old agency The Image Group in Holland said social networking sites are "a very important part of what we do right now." Jonathan Bell, a member of the creative department at The Image Group, said social networking sites are particularly useful to nonprofit organizations that need to frequently update information about their activities. But it is not a miraculous answer to a nonprofit's need for money.

"It's not the best tool for fundraising, on its own. I think that's one of the big misconceptions. 'If you just create a Facebook link, then the dollars start rolling in' — and that's not true," he said. "What is true is, you can create a following in social media and leverage that to (support) an event or leverage that to a film or a fundraising gala. It's a great medium."

International Aid, an internationally active nonprofit in Spring Lake, already had a Facebook account, "but we basically re-did it," said Bell. The agency also created a new Web site for International Aid that includes a link to the organization's Facebook.

Anybody can set up a Facebook account, said Bell. "Where the skill comes in is, how does it fit in the overall brand? There are ways in which you can use it to maximize the stories you are sharing, to maximize the news releases" issued on the site.

Times change and keep on changing, as demonstrated by the communications wonder that is the Internet. Seyferth started Seyferth and Associates 25 years ago. She said it has been "25 years and learning to communicate brand new all over. And loving it."

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