I suppose a site dedicated to business blogs simply has to mention the whole Raging Cow fiasco, since it continues to be touchstone in the minds of many on the whole subject of business blogs. For those of you lucky enough to never have heard of this whole tempest in a milk bottle, the basic background is this:
Dr. Pepper / 7 Up came out with a new flavored milk product called Raging Cow, which it sought to give hip legitimacy to by reaching out to blogs. It did so, via its online marketing agency Richards Interactive, by creating its own blog and by inviting a group of young bloggers to be briefed on the product, whom it encouraged to blog about the product. As best as I can tell, where it fell afoul of the blogosphere was that it then asked those young bloggers not to mention that they had been briefed about the product, as if their sudden new enthusiasm for flavored milk was purely their own idea.
To the company’s credit, Raging Cow’s blog and blog-PR initiative was one of the first efforts by a mainstream company to use blogs for marketing purposes (only a little over a year ago, March 2003; why does it seem like a lifetime ago?). But its PR mistep was badly received by the blogosphere, to say the least. Hardcore bloggers, who apparently wear their underpants a bit too tight, went ballistic at this attempt to corrupt their integrity of blogs, and for weeks, even months, it seemed all you heard on certain blogs was vitriol against Dr. Pepper (notably this silly call for a boycott on the product, as if anyone has actually seen Raging Cow in a store).
What irritates me about this whole episode is that it has become the embodiment in the minds of many of the idea that blogs and marketing don’t mix. The problem, if it even was a problem (Richards Interactive never saw it that way; see below), however, was never Raging Cow’s blog itself, which actually wasn’t bad, as adverblogs go
(I would link to it, but I notice just now that the site seems to be defunct, which I strongly suspect has much less to do with a boycott among obsessive bloggers than the fact that sugary milk can’t compete with sugary fizzy water among teen tastes). [UPDATE: I guess it was just down when I checked it when I first wrote this post. I now see it's back, though it's not apparent that the blog is still being updated.] The problem was bad PR: imagine asking a reporter for the NY Times or even a lowly trade magazine to write nice things about your product but not to mention that you had briefed them.
Anyway, in an effort to get the complete story on the episode, I asked journalist Kate Kaye last year to interview the folks at Richards Interactive for their side of the story, as part of our report Business Blogs: How Successful Companies Get Real Results With Weblogs. (Kate, incidentally, maintains a site called Lowbrow Lowdown, which although quite blog-like she proudly proclaims has been “blog-free since 2000,” which I gather means only that she codes the whole thing by hand and archives it via FTP for God knows what reason.)
So here for posterity, excerpted from our 2003 report, is the email interview she conducted with Todd Copilevitz, Director of Richards Interactive about the Raging Cow Blog Campaign:
When did the Raging Cow campaign launch?
The buzz campaign, which included the blogger elements started March 1 . The branded campaign launched with five markets March 15.
What was the objective of the RC campaign, specifically the blog component?
We were working with a product that had a short window for launch, and limited distribution initially. So we had to develop a strategy that increased awareness in key markets and seeded awareness in markets where we did not have distribution. To our advantage we had a strong defined character in the raging cow. As we started working on telling the cow’s story it became very obvious there was something compelling about the humor.
At the same time we did not want to try to force our way in front of teens with a typical advertising message. We know they are far more likely to respond to a message that offers some recognition of their habits and is willing to entertain. So our blog component was simply intended to make people aware of the cow — not even to mention the product. If teens recognized the cow when they saw the product or branded advertising that was all we could hope for.
The branded campaign, and the branded web site, had the broader responsibility of raising awareness of the product and increasing attendance at sampling events. At the same time the wild postings of posters on the streets were tasked with increasing sampling attendance and driving people to the web. In short, all the pieces were intertwined.
Is there a blogging software platform used to run the RC blog? If so, which one?
We licensed Moveable Type. A great product from people who know their stuff, and an amazing community of developers creating add-ins. And, yes, we paid the license fee.
Did the campaign involve any other components (ads or marketing strategies)?
Spot radio, sampling teams, street posters and extensive online advertising using page-crossing units and other large-format ads.
What did the advertiser and agency hope to or expect to achieve through the blog?
Beyond what I said earlier, we believed the blog network offered a unique and organic opportunity let teens tell other teens about the product. Of course we realized that was fraught with risk, since we had no control over the message. But to its credit, DPSU was willing to accept that.
Describe how the campaign was received, particularly by the blogging community. What about it was praised, what was panned?
Among the target audience we had incredible response. We had numerous links to the site with extensive tracking. A brand tracking study tells us that we moved the needle in every critical factor, all positively.
There was another community of bloggers who blew their lid at our presence. They flooded us with complaints, all of which accused DPSU of being deceitful with the blog effort. Ironically there was a DPSU copyright on site. The article in Newsweek was the result of a call from DPSU. So I don’t know how we could be accused of trying to hide our hand. Of even more interest, was the forum for many of the complaints, our site. DPSU said early on that it wanted a broad and deep dialogue on the Raging Cow site, so long as it stayed on target and wasn’t obscene. I found it particularly interesting that a great many of the bloggers venting on our site don’t even offer comment capability on their site.
How has the RC blog changed since its controversial beginnings?
I’d suggest the only controversy was among those who were never our target to begin with. But along the way we eliminated links to external blog sites. In part we did so because we did not have the time to monitor all of them for inappropriate content and didn’t want our link to suggest an endorsement. That became an issue once the number of sites requesting links got unmanageable.
What’s planned for the future of the RC blog? How long will it run?
The blog tells the story of the cow’s shift from placid dairy life to a crusader against boring milk. As such it will live on through the site. While we won’t be updating it as regularly as we did in the spring, it remains a viable channel for communication.
Does Richards Interactive or Dr Pepper plan to use blogs in the future for marketing purposes? If so, would the approach be different? In what way?
I won’t attempt to answer for DPSU, except to note that they have expressed an ongoing interest in the value of grassroots communication tools. Richards Interactive was working with blogs before this and has done so repeatedly since then. We have an active database of hundreds of bloggers of all ages across the country who want to be part of marketing efforts. (You can checkout the signup information at www.projectblog.com.) As for approach, it is always different. You cannot cookie-cutter this type of communication.
In terms of using blogs for business, specifically marketing purposes, what are the challenges or drawbacks from your perspective?
Blogs offer one of the most-effective ways for small companies and companies with a defined point of view to communicate that directly with audiences. Blogs rejuvenate some of the early promises of the Internet, namely a global platform for anyone with something to say and the means to articulate it.