August 7th, 2006

On MySpace, Millions of Users Make 'Friends' With Ads

By Elizabeth Holmes
Wall Street Journal

Micheal Poirier, a 32-year-old from Toronto, is friends with Ricky Bobby.

Not Will Ferrell, the actor who portrays Ricky Bobby in the new film “Talladega Nights.” Mr. Poirier is friends with the movie character, Ricky Bobby, who has his own profile on MySpace.com, News Corp.’s social networking site.

The site, http://www.myspace.com/rickybobby, looks just like the other 98 million profiles—listing things like his occupation ("Winner") and his heroes ("My Daddy, sweet baby Jesus, and that guy on TV in all those Karate movies"). Ricky Bobby has 47,000 “friends,” MySpace lingo for users linked to the page. The 1,500 comments range from admiration ("You kicked butt in the race the other day. Loved when you signed my baby’s head") to exultation ("Ricky Bobby is the Man!!").

Creating real-looking profiles for fictional characters is the latest step in marketers’ quest to reach the highly sought-after MySpace contingent. John Tucker, the womanizing teenager of “John Tucker Must Die,” and each of his four girlfriends have MySpace pages. (You can check John’s basketball schedule or read about Carrie’s plans for college.) So do seven of the characters from “Accepted,” a film about college students debuting this week. (Bartleby Gaines, the fictional star, lists “Fake I.D.’s” and “Monica” as his interests.) Even the creepily-quiet mascot king from the Burger King commercials has a site. ("If you’d like to be the King’s friend, he’s totally down with that,” his page introduction says.)

Although anybody can create a MySpace profile for free, and fake ones abound, these pages are the result of paid advertising deals with News Corp. The arrangement allows marketers to add extras like longer videos—including trailers for movies—and more pictures than a free page has.

But the real appeal to advertisers is the opportunity to create personal relationships with millions of actual young people. “What we really struck upon is the power of friendship,” says Michael Barrett, chief revenue officer for News Corp.’s Fox Interactive Media and overseer of these deals. And this is a big circle of friends. MySpace had nearly 45.7 million unique visitors in June alone, with users spending an average of nearly two hours on the site at a time, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

Mr. Poirier, for example, found Ricky Bobby’s site by typing “Ricky Bobby” into Google. Among the top three results was a link to the MySpace page, prompting Mr. Poirier, a fan of Mr. Ferrell’s, to take a peek. Not only did he add Ricky Bobby to his friend list, he changed his own profile picture to be that of Mr. Ferrell as Ricky Bobby. Mr. Poirier had an ulterior motive: he hoped a picture of Ricky Bobby would spark interest in his disc jockeying business.

“It’s almost like a signal to your brain, ‘Hey let’s check that guy out,’ “ says Mr. Poirier.

MySpace even helps marketers reach out to users of the site with what it calls “activation” of the page. When a character profile is launched, MySpace promotes the advertisement with electronic banners on its homepage and incentives for users to add the character as a “friend.” For “Talladega Nights,” people who befriended Ricky Bobby received a free Ricky Bobby button—still another form of marketing.

But will allowing advertisers to waltz freely with other MySpace users diminish the popularity of the site?

“It’s very coy. They’re being sneaky,” says Jesse Kozel, a 25-year-old from Florida, listed John Tucker as his friend without realizing the studio paid for the site. Mr. Kozel says he knew the site wasn’t run by the actor, but assumed it was one of the many hundreds of amateur sites created in honor of movie characters.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference. Anybody can create a site devoted to anything—and they do. A profile for Willy Wonka matches the feel of other fictional characters, listing his hometown ("the Land of Make Believe"), his occupation ("amazing chocolatier inventor extraordinaire") and his nearly 61,000 “friends.” But the Willy Wonka site is created by a fan, not the movie studio.

MySpace allows such unauthorized sites and studios generally love the free promotion. Almost anything goes on profile pages, but MySpace does remove explicit material. Contrary to popular belief, says Mr. Barrett with a laugh, “We do have standards and practices.”

Another thing MySpace frowns on is marketers creating pages for commercial products without striking an advertising deal. Some slip through, but MySpace does try to eliminate “repeat offenders,” says Mr. Barrett.

MySpace is trying to limit the paid profiles to products that will appeal to the site’s users, Mr. Barrett says. Although the site is set to reach 100 million profiles this week, the rapid growth of MySpace is slowing. Eighty percent of the users say they are over age 18 and baby boomers are discovering the site. “You start to have a lot of moms on board,” says Mr. Barrett.

MySpace has turned down profiles of movie characters deemed inappropriate, and many products have MySpace pages that users can link to without the personal profile dimension. Users can be “friends” with entire movies, for example, and with Toyota Motor Corp.’s new car, the Yaris, with no fictional characters involved.

“If there were friends from Crest, friends from General Motors, I think they’d be a little upset,” says Mr. Barrett. “We do it in a way that it is genuine.”

But it can be difficult for fictional characters to be genuine with thousands of friends hoping to interact with them. Posted on John Tucker’s page alone are hundreds of requests from fans for him to leave comments on their personal sites. No noticeable responses have been posted. “This is his fan base,” says Mr. Kozel of Jesse Metcalfe, the actor who portrays John Tucker. “If he’s not [keeping up with it] and the company’s not making him, the people leaving these messages would be pretty upset.”

Indeed, so much of MySpace’s appeal is the interaction among users, that if marketers let commercial sites lie dormant, the appeal will be lost, according to Rachel Honig, co-founder of the digital-marketing firm Digital Power & Light. “Whoever reaches out to that character is probably going to feel a little bit… betrayed is probably a strong word, but that affinity is not going to be there,” she says.

Some fictional characters do answer back, when it serves their interests. “Jill Johnson,” the lead character from the 2006 remake of the 1979 movie “When a Stranger Calls,” wrote on a fan’s page: “I’m so glad that I have MySpace friends to keep me company.” Her post was timed carefully to the release of the DVD.

Even when the potential is realized, Ms. Honig thinks marketing via MySpace is a fad that will fade quickly. Mr. Barrett says he sees the trend of highly targeted, Web-based marketing growing, not stopping.

“This is more than just a cute little stunt,” he says.

Some fans are drawing the line. Renzo Serrada, a 21-year-old college student from Freemont, Calif., has Ricky Bobby listed as his “friend,” but turned down the Burger King king.

“That’s a little bit too far when they start adding fast-food mascots,” says Mr. Serrada.

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