San Francisco's residents were understandably bemused when they saw 250,000 bouncy balls being fired down their streets in rapid succession last summer. It's a sign of the times that the city's folk didn't just talk about it with their neighbours and friends, but told the rest of the world when they wrote about it online and posted images of what they'd seen on user-generated content sites like Flickr, YouTube and iFilm.
"We started to think: there's an opportunity here to really start engaging with the audience in a way that's slightly different to traditional advertising," recalls Ranzie Anthony, founding partner of Tonic, the digital agency that worked on the 'Balls' campaign for Sony with media partner OMD Digital.
"The initial blogging activity made us realise people had a really warm feeling towards this ad campaign, so we wanted to encourage that as much as possible and let it roll on its own," adds Ruth Speakman, European PR manager for Sony Europe.
Rather than barge into the conversation taking place online about the mysterious, bouncy balls, Sony decided to feed the talk by providing a 'blog-fodder' site at Bravia-advert.com. On this site, visitors were given access to high-definition images, behind-the-scenes video clips, wallpaper and screensavers, which they could download and share. These were provided by Fallon, the creative agency behind the TV campaign.
A week later, an exclusive 60-second clip of the TV ad was added to Bravia-advert.com. Then, once the TV ad went live, the full-length version was posted on the site and seeded on to both Flickr and YouTube. The Bravia site also included a link to a traditional product-focused microsite, focused specifically on the benefits of Sony Bravia's LCD TV range.
"We tried to make the content as accessible as possible," says Anthony. "So, visitors can download assets to Sony PSP devices or their mobile. The aim was to encourage people to share content." At the same time, Tonic was conscious of ensuring the site was easy to use, "so we made sure visitors could increase the text size or use a screenreader".
Many firms are wary of web 2.0 sites as they have no control over what happens to their brand. Sony's 'Balls' push spawned many copycat clips online and even spoofs from other brands, such as Tango with its bouncing fruit. Yet, Sony was prepared to see what happened and, says Speakman, the experience has "wakened Sony to the possibilities of what can be achieved."
Anthony adds: "I think this was a re-education process for Sony because this medium is not like traditional broadcast or banner advertising, where we can control the messaging. On these social media sites, the user is in control and all we can do is encourage the conversation to go in a particular direction. We did it by creating assets for people to share on Bravia-advert."
The unproven nature of web 2.0 campaigns meant there were lots of discussions at the planning stage over how many assets to release, and when, in order to keep visitors interested, without revealing too much of the TV ad before it aired.
However, letting users do the talking for the brand paid off handsomely. "We monitored site traffic against references to the site from the Technorati search engine and tallied it every day," says Fred Whitton, digital manager at OMD Digital. Its tracking found 17,500 sites were linked to Bravia-advert.com; more than two million people visited the site; the TV ad had 1.8 million views on the site and was downloaded 40,000 times; and there were an estimated seven million further viewings on Google Video, YouTube and other web 2.0 sites. And, although the push was pan-European, it had a global reach, with a number of Bravia visitors hailing from the US.
OMD monitored visitors' browsers and found the balance shifted from Safari (Mac) and FireFox to Internet Explorer users during the campaign, indicating that it extended beyond the target group of 'digital influencers' to a mainstream audience. "We have strong evidence showing sales increased when only the blogging and Bravia-advert site were live," adds Whitton.
With such fantastic results - not to mention a few industry gongs for the agencies involved in the campaign - it's not surprising that Sony decided to step up the web 2.0 online activities for its latest 'Paint' campaign (see box) to make it even bigger and better than its predecessor.
SONY BRAVIA CREATES 'PAINT' SPLASH
Sony Bravia's latest 'Paint' campaign not only involved more web 2.0 sites, but also saw more web 2.0 features added to Bravia-advert.com.
What's more, the full-length TV ad was shown online on the morning of October 17, before being aired on TV that same evening.
Planning for the online part of the campaign began earlier than that for 'Balls', even though the brief was the same: to reinforce the brand message that Sony Bravia delivers 'colour like no other' and raise awareness among 'digital influencers'.
Building on the knowledge gleaned from 'Balls', the web element was foremost in the communications planning strategy right from the start. "This time around, we selected three bloggers, invited them to Glasgow for the shoot, and gave them behind-the-scenes access and a Sony digital camera each," says Tonic's Anthony.
Rather than waiting for passers-by and the bloggers to post their content online, Sony pre-empted them by putting a short 'making of' clip on Bravia-advert.com, along with some images that revealed the paint theme, but didn't spoil the TV ad. Further content was drip-fed gradually on to the site in the run-up to the TV broadcast.
"We looked at how we could build on the anticipation of the ads because we knew people would be interested, so we started to feed into conversation that Sony might use paint. Immediate Future reported what conversations were happening out there, so we could respond in a way that elongated discussions," explains Anthony.
The clips were also seeded on more sites; not just Flickr and YouTube, but also Grouper (a Sony-owned video-sharing site). The three bloggers' own sites carried links. Tonic is also in talks with Sony Play-Station and Sony Ericsson about sharing content for 'Paint' on their sites.
Bravia-advert.com was improved and its domain name changed to Colourlikenoother.com to tie in with Sony Bravia's branding. This time, Vividas technology was used to stream the TV ad on the site and an RSS feed added to tell visitors when new content is posted. An online game was also launched internally to promote 'Paint' to staff. The game held the top spot on Channel 4's games site at the time of going to press.
With 'Paint', Sony has been more proactive in using its site to contribute to blog debates. As some bloggers were concerned about the environmental repercussions of firing 70,000 litres of paint on a derelict tower block, "we posted information on the clean-up process and pointed out that the paint was drinkable", says Anthony.
More agencies were also involved; not just OMD, but also Freud PR (overall PR strategy), Immediate Future (blogging relations) and Spannerworks (traffic measurement).
It's early days, but, during the week the TV ad aired, there were more than one million user sessions. The expectation is that 'Paint' will be even more successful than 'Balls'.