By signing on to file-swapping networks, people may expose their instant messaging handles and entertainment tastes to the world. That combination offers a potent platform for lurking advertisers, who are ready to risk annoying millions of Web surfers for the chance to appeal to a handful of receptive music fans.
"It's a chilling thought...The songs that you make visible to the world on Napster say a lot about you," said Jason Catlett, president of antispam group Junkbusters. "Many people don't realize that when they're using these P2P services they are becoming publishers of their personal collections--it's like putting your CD collection in the window fronting the street."
For now, major online advertising networks including DoubleClick and Engage have stayed on the sidelines of IM marketing. But other grassroots marketers and online ad networks are aggressively tuning into the affinities of consumers, scavenging the pseudonyms of people who like a particular artist and then inviting them via IM to buy an album or visit the artist's home page.
Illustrating the heft of marketing to come, online advertising agency L90 this week inked a deal with peer-to-peer network Aimster in one of the first exclusive partnerships to promote goods to consumers via instant messaging.
A.D.D. Marketing and Big Champagne, both newcomers to the Web, are capitalizing on the intimacy of file-sharing systems by hitting up Napster and Gnutella users to visit artist home pages or sign up for various contests based on the artists the person collects. Los Angeles-based Big Champagne recently pushed an acoustic version of an Aimee Mann track, off her new album, to fans of the artist, garnering 20 percent response rates from fans, company co-founder Eric Garland said.
Sitting ducks to marketers
Such tactics could represent the next frontier in the fight against spam, or unsolicited e-mail, on the Net. Because many consumers sign on to peer-to-peer systems with no idea that they're publicizing their music tastes to the world, for example, industry watchers say this makes them sitting ducks to marketers, who can for the first time assemble elaborate data on consumer preferences on movies, music, software and whatever else is shared.
"Marketers will scavenge for any personal information on which they can target you," said Catlett. "But unsolicited instant messaging is the same morally as spam--marketers shouldn't do it, and they're going to get a huge push-back if they try."
"People will always disagree with what you're doing, but people are definitely open to getting info that helps," Wechsler said.
In addition, some IM services provide filters for any message from a source that is not on a "buddy list" of shared usernames, meaning advertisers might not have direct access to their targets. Yahoo Instant Messenger, for example, asks members if they want to chat with an unknown individual before opening a dialogue box.
L90 will use instant message technology to send promotions to Aimster's buddy lists, which are compatible to programs including AOL Time Warner's AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo. Consumers who voluntarily sign up for a buddy list, or artist fan club, may receive promotions geared toward the favored artist via Web pages.
In other words, the user would not see an instant message with a particular pitch for a band such as Talking Heads. Rather, L90 will send an instruction through the instant message application that would automatically direct the user's browser to a Web page with Talking Heads information.
"A really bad idea..."
Although online advertising schemes such as spam have long survived the enmity of consumers, analysts predict IM marketing will face a bitter backlash.
Jim Nail, online advertising analyst with Forrester Research, said that although advertisers cannot actually see private discussions over instant messenger, popping open a chat box on someone's computer screen is similar to interrupting an actual conversation,
"This is a really bad idea because instant messaging physically is like a private conversation. This is like you're talking with your boyfriend over the phone and 1-800-Flowers jumps in and says 'I see you're having an argument, why don't you buy some flowers?'" he said.
Even some IM marketing pioneers said the long-term viability of pushing ads through peer-to-peer networks faces some serious hurdles.
"The instant messaging marketing is in its infancy now, but its life span will be short," said Big Champagne's Garland, asserting that the company is only dabbling in this form of marketing while its primary focus is online market research. Garland called the Aimee Mann promotion a "stunt" because "instant messaging is such a powerful communication tool that it very quickly devolves into spam. It is going to have to be opt-in."
Backers of the marketing technique will have a chance to gauge consumer response next week.
Johnny Deep, chief executive of Aimster, said that IM campaigns on Aimster will start as soon as Monday and may include such clients as Aerosmith, Microsoft and Columbia Tristar.
One example of a potential promotion would be sending an Aerosmith music clip to members of the band's Aimster fan club. Although joining the club doesn't explicitly create an agreement to accept such messages, Deep said, membership implies that receiving that kind of targeted promotion would be OK.
"Essentially it's the next wave of commercialization of the Net," Deep said. "Instant messaging is the delivery vehicle for everything in the same way the Web used to be the delivery vehicle. Now we're using IM for everything, for MP3s, sending movie trailers, software, text."
Gold mines to market researchers
This is so much more effective than banner ads and e-mail because it can be tied to actual results, said Deep, who said that marketers pay by the number of responses to any given promotion.
"The risk in this case is to the advertiser. It's so easy for consumers to get off a buddy list that (marketers) will have to be careful of what they send," he said.
Because the record industry historically hasn't had great information about what motivates people to buy a record, file-sharing networks such as Napster are also gold mines to market researchers.
The beauty of peer-to-peer file sharing is that it's an anonymous community, Garland said, and marketers can look at all this activity, i.e., what content, what films, what songs, what homework assignments are moving where. Big Champagne and others can look at what songs are most popular off any given album and create elaborate profiles on fan segments.
"There's a tremendous amount of trend data and info about tastes that's never been available before," Garland said. "But there's a lot of kinetic energy there that almost immediately lends itself to abuse. These are great communities; they don't have to tolerate unwanted marketing."