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eBay enlists "buddy" to draw AOL users

The company is the latest to use instant messaging as a marketing tool, introducing an interactive agent to promote eBay with a limited number of AOL Instant Messenger users.

eBay has brought on a new pitchman for its bidding network on America Online: an instant messenger "buddy."

The online auctioneer has introduced an interactive agent to promote eBay with a limited number of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) users. Launched last week, the agent, called My eBay Buddy, can be added to AIM's "buddy list"; it interacts with people by answering basic questions about the auction site. For example, AIM users can find out how to sell items, register on eBay or search for merchandise.

The buddy's chief occupation, however, is to direct AOL users back to eBay's Web site to boost auction participation by AOL's 34 million members.

"The idea is to have an interactive component for AOL members to introduce and educate them about eBay," said eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove.

The buddy is the latest facet of eBay's multiyear marketing partnership with AOL, which was designed to cross-promote the two networks. The companies market each other's services through banner advertisements and links throughout their Web sites.

By adding IM as a promotional tool, eBay can appeal to a widening core of people using instant messenger to chat with friends, get information or navigate the Web.

eBay is only the latest company to tap instant messaging for commercial purposes. Music behemoths including Warner Bros. Records and Capital Records have used IM to promote artists and newly launched records.

The buddies have proved popular with teens. Last month, teen site introduced an instant messaging tool targeted at teenage girls, with great success. Since its launch Feb. 19, the agent has drawn nearly 300,000 unique users, according to its creator, New York-based ActiveBuddy.

The interactive agent--which provides information on news and trends in fashion, entertainment and beauty--has also been effective at driving traffic to the Web site. From January to February, traffic to leaped by 83 percent, according to ActiveBuddy.

ActiveBuddy's seminal interactive agent, SmarterChild, similarly answers questions on a number of topics, including news, weather, sports and horoscopes. The tool, available on Yahoo Messenger and AIM, has more than five million users.

eBay's Pursglove said the company does not have plans to develop the eBay buddy for Yahoo or Microsoft instant messengers. The technology is being tested with a limited number of AOL users for only a few months, Pursglove said. He added that the company will evaluate how well consumers respond to the buddy and then decide whether to extend its use more broadly, by building in tools such as bidding notification, for example.