With Event, Brands Take Social Media Into Real Life

The menu of McDonald's and Bud Light wasn't exactly haute cuisine. It was enough, however, to satisfy the 150 hockey fans who got together last week in New York as part of a series of parties organized online by the National Hockey League to celebrate the start of the playoff season.

The NHL held what is probably the most extensive "Tweetup" to date, using the service to hold parties in 23 U.S. and Canadian cities. They ran the gamut of large and small, with some like the one in Regina, Saskatchewan, drawing 350 attendees and others, like the one in Edmonton, Alberta, attracting just 10.

The NHL and other brands are taking a page from political groups that use social-networking tools to help their constituencies organize themselves. The most prominent example, of course, is Barack Obama's presidential campaign, which proved social networking is a powerful way to create a grassroots movement. Brands are eager to replicate his success -- both online and in real life.

"The social-networking phenomenon doesn't just reside online," said Mike DiLorenzo, director of corporate communications at the NHL. "There's something to creating an experience for people."

Originally, the NHL was looking to throw a party only in New York. It put out word through Twitter that it was having the party. To its surprise, it found that Twitter users in other cities were eager to hold their own get-togethers. One fan even built an online hub to organize the Tweetups.

Other brands doing Tweetups include Ford, Pepsi, Panasonic and Cisco. Zipcar, for instance, is using Twitter as part of an Earth Day promotion in New York this week. At the gathering people can air their "green confessions" on Twitter. It expects about 1,000 people to attend.

While Twitter is the hot vehicle of choice, brands are also using more established platforms. House Party, an Irvington, N.Y., company, has helped throw tens of thousands of brand fetes over the past two years through its online platform. It works with brands to recruit hosts who fit their target markets, then each organizer utilizes a custom social-networking site to recruit members, post materials and build buzz for the parties.

When Ziploc, back in February, wanted to build awareness of its storage bags and containers, House Party recruited hosts for nearly 1,000 "home organization" parties. More than 14,000 people attended, according to House Party.

"It's hard for [brands] to create that kind of intimacy, to [sit] on somebody's couch and be the center of attention," said House Party CEO Kitty Kolding.

Such outings can risk being too product focused for some consumers. New York-based Meetup avoids that problem by throwing parties for which brands are the sponsors, not the main events. The seven-year-old company rose to prominence when it arranged gatherings of all sizes for Howard Dean's meteroic rise during the 2004 Democratic presidential primary. It now has 80,000 meetings a month held by 37,000 local groups.

"We believe when brands can become useful to the communities it's good for the brands and the communities," said Carrie Seifer, sponsorship alchemist at Meetup.

American Express, for instance, sponsors 250 small-business groups. It gets ad placement on each group's page, helps to defray the cost organizers pay for their groups, and distributes AmEx information on subjects like tax planning and search engine optimization during the meetings.

Sony BMG recently promoted the release of the new Bruce Springsteen CD by sponsoring a wide variety of groups dedicated to subjects like 1980s rock, football and even President Obama. It gave the groups copies of the CD to give away at their meetings.

"These are authentic groups meeting up on a topic they deem important," said Seifer. "These aren't people waiting around for mayonnaise to be delivered in their laps."

The gatherings are attractive for another reason: they're dirt cheap. Cisco threw a Tweetup at the Consumer Electronics Show in January to compensate for its decision to forgo a trade show booth. The NHL used a free Twitter RSVP tool built by an independent developer, and McDonald's and Bud Light supplied the refreshments in New York, with the league supplying tchotchkes to gatherings in other cities.

For brands used to the wide reach of traditional media, the modest attendance numbers can raise the question of whether these parties are worth the trouble. This comes up with "brands still married to TV," said Seifer. "[For] brands in digital who know the long tail, it doesn't come up."

The counterargument is they tend to reach the right people -- users of social-media services who tend to be bloggers and active online in sharing information and shaping opinions.

The ability to reach this target is why Ford held a Tweetup two weeks ago to coincide with the New York Auto Show as part of its grassroots marketing experiment for the Ford Fiesta. In a first, Ford is promoting the car by loaning it to 100 "agents" to use for six months and share their experiences online.
"We chose digital influencers because online word of mouth is being paid attention to a lot nowadays," said Scott Monty, digital communications manager at Ford.

Measuring the success of the get-togethers can be a challenge. Meetup relies on a post-gathering survey to gauge brand metrics. While it's less focused on tracking directly to leads, House Party attempts to close the loop on this through the use of tracking coupons and other means.

Beyond a direct sales metric, there is, of course, the viral buzz. The NHL found its mentions on Twitter skyrocketed after the Tweetups. It's also tracking positive blog buzz. Perhaps more important to the league, which has lost prominence in recent years to rival sports, the campaign established the NHL as progressive in catering to fans.

"As these platforms continue to emerge, we're there already," DiLorenzo said. "We're positioning ourselves well to take advantage of them."

Originally published April 20, 2009, byAdWeek.