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Palm's celebrity guests

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos explains how the handheld-device maker is working influencer marketing to its advantage.

Lou Reed, one of the founders of the Velvet Underground and the author of a number of rock classics, recently suffered a personal loss: His Treo 600 got killed in a traffic accident.

"I can't believe this happened. I'm so bummed," Reed told Marcus Colombano, a marketing consultant who handles product placement for the Treo smart phone. "It fell in the snow and got run over by a truck." A new unit was sent off to him immediately.

Welcome to the world of influencer marketing. Colombano, who runs San Francisco-based Avantgarde, tries to build momentum for products by getting them in the hands of the right people. He conducts the Treo campaign for PalmOne, the hardware side of the former Palm, which acquired the Treo when it bought rival handheld maker Handspring in 2003.

For PalmOne and PalmSource--the software spinoff that is holding its

Avantgarde also landed a Treo 600 in the hands of Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz. Whether there is a connection or not, Starbucks is rolling out Treos to parts of its field force at the moment.

Are people so shallow that they'll buy something, just because it seems sort of cool?
A PalmOne spokesman said the company has always perceived value in this sort of effort.

In a lot of ways, influencer marketing resembles high school for bigwigs. Musician Peter Gabriel got a Treo when it first came out--a model 180--in early 2002, Colombano said. Reed saw it and called up for one. Later, Gabriel and Reed went to dinner with Laurie Anderson, who asked for one, after she saw them making phone calls.

Soon after, assistants for composer Philip Glass, jazz musician Branford Marsalis and Metallica requested, and received, Treo units for their bosses.

They're all free, of course. It would be unseemly to ask a multimillionaire for money. So far, Colombano has given away about 300 of the handhelds.

"There are two types of people," he said. "There are the ones that say, 'Thank you, it's great.' Then there are the people that say, 'Can I get another one? I need four more.'"

Tawdry as all this might sound, celebrity marketing is likely to only grow in importance in the high-tech world. Computer makers, cell phone manufacturers and others are finally seeing the emergence of that long-held dream, the digital lifestyle. Liquid crystal display televisions, digital cameras, digital video recorders and notebooks are selling in record numbers.

The proliferation of personal technology devices, however, means that manufacturers will increasingly have to shift from highlighting quantitative factors like speed and performance in their marketing to focusing on more elusive, qualitative ones, like color, design or lifestyle matching.

Are people so shallow that they'll buy something just because it seems sort of cool? Is there a Razor scooter rattling around your utility closet? (Palm, of course, isn't alone. Peter Frampton owns a gratis Athlon 64 PC, sources say.)

Naturally, picking the right influencer isn't easy. Veteran comedian Shecky Green probably isn't high on Colombano's list of potential targets. The units don't randomly go out in the mail: Typically, the so-called target--or a representative--agrees to receive one.

Still, the list of targets is rather diverse. Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin has become a Treo user through the program, as have actor Evan Handler, Fiat auto designer Michael Robinson, Oxford professor and author Richard Dawkins, Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullins, and Andy Caldwell, a disk jockey. ("Caldwell's good for demonstrating it, because he travels a lot" and hence uses more of the communication bands, Colombano said.)

Celebrity ex-hacker Kevin Mitnick has joined the club, too. Colombano met Mitnick at a social occasion where Mitnick demonstrated to him--purely for entertainment purposes--how he could hack his cell phone to make it look like his wife was calling.

Strategic placement alone won't rocket Palm back to its former glory. Shipments of personal organizers (that is, Palms without a phone) sank 17.9 percent, from 12.6 million units in 2002 to 10.4 million units last year, according to research firm IDC.

Sales of converged devices like the Treo are rising. But the field of competitors is broadening and now includes cell phone stalwarts such as Nokia. Other companies, such as Samsung, are to fancy handhelds in the United States.

Then there are all those crazy names. Palm split into PalmSource and PalmOne and owns Handspring as a separate brand. PalmOne's high-end product is Tungsten, but the low-end one isn't named Sodium or a less valuable member of the periodic table. Instead, it's Zire--which sounds suspiciously like Zira, the female chimp in "Planet of the Apes."

Nonetheless, the company remains well-known, and a little name recognition could keep it toward the top of the heap.