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Arlington's New Media Strategies: Interview With Peter Snyder
Listening to gossip about Desperate Housewives , what more people will be using cell phones for, the future of blogs, and other secrets of the high-tech marketplace. By Ken Adelman
Comments () | Published October 1, 2006
National editor Ken Adelman (adelmank@aol.com) has been conducting What I’ve Learned interviews since 1988.

Through the Internet, everyone gets access to staggering amounts of information in real time,” Peter Snyder says. “Corporations need to listen to what people are saying out there—otherwise, they’ll get left behind.”

Snyder is founder of the Arlington-based New Media Strategies, which specializes in online market research and communications.

“A single disgruntled consumer with a modem can now go toe to toe with Coca-Cola,” he says. “Ten years ago, what was he going to do? Harass some poor secretary?

“Through user-generated content, you can use blogs, message boards, and chat rooms to voice your opinion to the top brass. And your views will be there, living forever online for everyone to see.”

Snyder was born in 1972 in Salem, Massachusetts, and grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His father was a developer, his mother a stay-at-home mom. Snyder graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1994 with a government degree.

He then worked for a series of Republican ad agencies and pollsters. In 1999, he founded New Media Strategies. Clients have included ABC, Disney, Ford, HBO, McDonald’s, Northwest Airlines, Paramount Pictures, RCA Records, Reebok, and Sony. This year New Media Strategies helped market five movies that made it to number one at the box office.

The company was named by Inc. magazine as being among the nation’s fastest-growing companies and by Washington Business Journal as one of the area’s best places to work.

Snyder lives in McLean. In the midst of following the television industry’s presentations of new shows for the fall season, we talked about what he’s learned.

How do you create buzz?

Start by having a good product or show. Not everything is buzzworthy.

People talk a lot about products they like and films they’ve seen or want to see. Our job is to act as a Sherpa for corporations and brands—to connect them to consumers.

How do companies like yours influence consumer decisions?

We do a lot of work with Hollywood studios and Fortune 500 companies, informing them of the buzz on their films, actors, and products. We search entertainment sites and see the snarky blogs with the latest Hollywood gossip.

We learn what mainstream Americans are saying, especially leading up to a film’s opening weekend. Are they interested in the movie? We can help the studio gauge expectations or change its marketing campaigns if need be.

Do you stuff chat rooms with praise from phony people?

Not only are those “stuffing” practices bad form; they don’t work. If a PR firm blows into a message board or blog that it’s never been to before and shills for a client, nine times out of ten it’ll backfire.

If you poke around online communities, you’ll find that they really are communities. People go there on a regular basis. They gain a sense of the others there and what they stand for. Anyone barging in to shill for some product will become suspect.

Your connection needs to be honest, factual, and noninterruptive. To influence others, people need to know who you are and your reputation. You need to add value to the community or conversation.

Give me a case study.

Burger King came to us a few years back. It has a huge business in the Middle East, yet its numbers were bleeding in parts of the region. It couldn’t figure out why.

We uncovered one Palestinian teacher in Chicago who, equipped with a computer and modem, had started a worldwide Muslim boycott of Burger King. He alone was the cause of the company’s drop in business.

After we found the cause, we worked with Burger King to counter this guy’s misinformation. That’s a real-world example of information traveling quickly and the ability to combat it fast.

For the TV show Desperate Housewives, we examined public online information. We found that people were really attracted to Teri Hatcher and wondered about her return to television. They hadn’t seen Marcia Cross since Melrose Place and were wondering what she’d been up to. The show’s marketers could then emphasize those elements. After the show launched, we monitored what moved the audience—the Teri Hatcher character’s tryst with the plumber or the murder plot line?

Once we figure out things like that, our clients can retool their marketing techniques—print advertising, trailers, commercials—to make them more effective.

One of our most fun campaigns was our work for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. To make sure the movies were successful, the millions who had loved the Tolkien books over the past five decades had to be on board with how they were translated to the screen.

In politics, it’s all about turning out the vote on Election Day. In the film business, it’s all about getting butts in the seats for opening weekend. If a studio doesn’t earn back at least 40 percent of what it invested in a film in the first weekend, it probably will never make its money back.

So New Line Cinema needed hard-core Tolkien fans to show up on opening weekend. We helped New Line understand what Tolkien fans liked and didn’t like about what they knew about the film. We then helped the company reach out to them, get their opinions, and bring them along for the ride.

Once the core fans were happy and talking about the film, that influenced more mainstream and casual moviegoers.

Where do people go to learn about consumer products?

It’s still done primarily by word of mouth. That remains the most trusted form of referral—and the most powerful form of marketing. People get so saturated with advertising that much of the ads lose their punch.

People rely most heavily on what people just like them think. So if you’re a mom with three kids who’s thinking about the new Chrysler minivan, go online to see what moms with three kids who actually own one think.

Which online trends will fade, and which have staying power?

Annoying pop-up ads will fade.

Things that will last include Really Simple Syndication, or RSS—Web feeds used by the blog community to share their latest entry headlines, full text, or media files directly with their readers. Think of it as direct feeds that push information to people rather than making them search for it or come to you. Sixty-three percent of major corporations say they’ll use RSS to distribute content and information in the next year.

Social networks such as MySpace are in for the long haul. They’re addictive.

MySpace allows people, mostly kids, to put up their own music and blogs. In any public school in America, maybe half of the students have their own MySpace page, with likes and dislikes, blogs on their daily life, favorite music, and a list of friends with whom they cross-pollinate.

The rumor mill used to be confined to the school cafeteria; now it’s online for everyone to read. This may be scary later when these kids apply for jobs and their prospective employers see their wild party pictures via Google. That said, who knows? It may actually help them get the job.

How do you see blogs evolving?

They’ll become multimedia, with less text. In essence, blogs, podcasts, and video podcasts will all blend. We’ll see corporations, causes, politicians, and establishment figures adopt blogs as standard in their communications and outreach.

Advertising isn’t the only way to monetize blogs. Recently, the better-known bloggers have turned their fame into book deals, such as Wonkette founder Ana Marie Cox’s Dog Days, Hugh Hewitt’s Painting the Map Red, and Crashing the Gate by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of Daily Kos.

News organizations including CNN, the Washington Post, and ESPN have begun developing the blogosphere as a farm team.

Corporations such as GM, Dell, and Microsoft as well as industry associations like the National Association of Manufacturers have full-time bloggers as part of their corporate communications efforts.

In my world of PR and marketing, blogging expertise opens job opportunities. Even traditional PR and marketing firms prowl there for talent to help navigate their clients through the online landscape.

What’s the latest in technology?

Video podcasting. Companies can now sponsor podcasts germane to their products. An automotive company has a world-class driver give driving tips. They’re creating content, targeted for those who are interested in such products or activity. The podcast can then be downloaded.

Another new feature is the ability to do virtually all of your research on major products online. If you’re interested in buying a new car, you can research that online and watch footage of that car. You’ll know a great deal before entering the showroom.

What’s coming on mobile phones?

More customization. If you’re a Nationals or Capitals fan, you can get real-time scores sent to you or be told who’s coming off the bench that minute to play.

After the big game, or after your favorite sitcom runs and you’ve forgotten to set your TiVo to catch it, you can go online and download it. Then you can watch it on your own time and device.

This is a threat to advertisers, as viewers are no longer forced to watch ads, so the networks are looking for new revenue streams once those ad dollars dry up. That comes from selling individual program downloads for $1.99 or the whole series on DVD for $19.99.

Shows that will increasingly be watched on iPods or mobile phones will be changed. They’ll have tighter screen shots, with little or no activity in the background, to make for better viewing.

What about video games?

They’re huge. Two years ago, video-game sales eclipsed the $9 billion in box-office receipts earned by Hollywood.

The public plunks down $400 or $450 for a video console and then buys games from $12.99 to $49. There’s a video game out there on any interest, any sport—bass fishing, whatever.

The demographics of video games have grown way beyond the 18-to-22-year-old. Now adults in their thirties, forties, and fifties play video games. Dads used to go out in the backyard and shoot hoops or toss the baseball with their kids. Now many of them play Madden NFL before the kids go to bed. That’s not a bad way to connect at your kids’ level.

All this can be done online. You and your kid can team up on a game and play against your brother and his kid in California. As you’re playing in real time, you two can be talking to the other team across the country.

How can kids stay safe online?

A Department of Justice study revealed that one in five young people age 10 to 17 receives unwanted sexual solicitations online. All of our gizmos and technological advances have helped society, but they’ve also made it tougher to be a parent.

Our company works with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which has been innovative in educating adults about some of these dangers. The NetSmartz section of its Web site, miss­ingkids.com, guides kids and teens. It recommends getting computers out of your kids’ bedrooms and into the family room and talking to kids about not responding to offensive or potentially dangerous instant messages and e-mails from strangers.

The National Center’s CyberTipline—cybertipline.com—is a reporting resource to alert authorities to exploitative activities online. Since 1998, nearly 400,000 reports of child pornography and exploitation have been filed by the CyberTipline.

What are your favorite Web sites?

AdRants.com is great for industry fodder in the world of advertising and marketing.

ExtremeMortman.com is a witty take on what’s happening inside the Beltway. It has a terrific regular feature, Blogs the Famous Media Reads, highlighting the blogs that mainstream media types like Howard Fineman of Newsweek and Steve Scully of C-Span read regularly. Full disclosure: The site’s blogger, Howard Mortman, works with me.

Commonwealth Conservative (vaconservative.com) is the best roundup of news and commentary on Virginia politics. RedState.com keeps me in tune with what conservatives are saying and feeling.

What lessons have you learned about new media?

That to reach people you can’t just put a sign on the side of a bus or buy a half-minute ad during the Super Bowl. You have to take your message to where they live on the Internet.

It’s not good enough to hope that people will stop saying bad things about your product. You have to anticipate that and combat it.

People don’t expect products to be perfect, but they do expect people offering those products to be human. We’re a forgiving culture and can accept things going wrong, but we want to get value for our dollar—to know that when a problem arises, someone out there cares. If you engage with the public, that’s more than half the battle.

Companies need to listen to the marketplace, even inside their own walls. At our company, we have a survey team that conducts a quarterly survey of our staff. Every three months, everyone gives his or her views on what’s going right and wrong. It’s a terrific learning tool and keeps us from going over the edge as a business and culture—or rather, it helps us not go too far over the edge.

Leaders aren’t expected to know everything. Don’t pretend you do. If you’re honest and people see that you’re trying your best, they’ll cut you a lot of slack. And you’ll need it.

“To reach people,” Peter Snyder says, “you have to take your message to where they live on the Internet.”

 

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