Some Brands Bet on Chatroulette

With its mixture of voyeurism, sex and technology, it’s easy to understand Chatroulette’s appeal to young men, but are marketers jazzed about it too? For the most part, no, but in its short life, the platform has attracted at least three high-profile brands: French Connection, Burger King and Travelocity.

The social media world’s latest shiny object is the brainchild of 17-year-old Moscow high school student Andrey Ternovskiy, who reportedly built it in two days and operates it out of his bedroom. Six months later, it now has 10 million monthly users, up from the 500 visitors it initially attracted.
In Twitter’s nascent days, it was hard to imagine the marketing potential of 140 characters, so marketers are eyeing the new technology closely. While few have experimented with it, those who have say they are enthusiastic about the results of its real-time interaction with consumers. BK and Travelocity found a surprising reception to their commercial icons. Chat partners asked Travelocity’s spokesgnome about being electrocuted or eaten by piranhas, episodes from commercials that are nearly six years old. With BK, The King’s screen pals tried to take a virtual bite of the burger on offer.

As part of BK’s Steakhouse XT giveaway promotion this spring, Crispin Porter + Bogusky thought about putting The King on Manhattan streets to hand out coupons. Instead, in late March they put him on Chatroulette, with a link to a coupon site.

“People are using Chatroulette as another screen, another TV channel,” said Jason Marks, CP+B interactive creative director. “We entered their screens the way commercials enter TV. This is their own live, personal TV commercial they take part in. It was totally unfiltered, not like an ad buy. It was real-time interaction in a completely new way.”

As for the unfiltered part and Chatroulette’s reputation for attracting lewd activity, Marks — like others interviewed for this story — said as soon as anything untoward appeared, staffers used the site’s “next” option to move on. He said The King “nexted” more than he was dropped as a partner, with chats lasting, on average, about 60 seconds. “Our goal was not the number of coupons we gave out,” Marks said. “It was to create a very personal interaction with the brand.”

Travelocity’s gnome has been on Chatroulette for more than two weeks and is still there, generating around 100,000 impressions and more than 300 partner “conversations,” with some lasting as long as three to five minutes. The gnome teases the site’s screen-addicted fans holding signs that say things like, “This would be more fun if we were in Rio.”

Jim Russell, evp, director of digital strategy  at Travelocity agency McKinney, said Chatroulette is interesting, even if it’s not the next Facebook. “The random nature of Chatroulette as it is now makes me think it won’t go mainstream,” he said. “With media, it’s about ‘How does the brand message [play] in this world?’ With Chatroulette, it’s about ‘How does the brand behave in this world?’”

Dan Toporek, director of PR, Travelocity, said, “It’s been a fun, inspiring experiment for us” — one that could a become viable option with new filters. “With Chatroulette microsites, you could come across people who are more relevant. How Chatroulette plays out as a marketing platform depends on how it evolves and the marketing tools around it.”

Those tools are already evolving. Robert J. Moore, CEO of RJMetrics, pointed to, for instance, Google’s new site, Chatroulette Maps, which plots screen shots from random sessions on a map.  For more than two weeks earlier this spring, RJMetrics compiled detailed data on 2,883 Chatroulette sessions that tied users to things like geography, gender and appearance. The data showed 89 percent of users were male and 11 percent were female. (Users are more likely to come across a Webcam featuring no one than to find a female alone.) Some 8 percent of spins showed multiple people; one in three females used Chatroulette as part of a group versus one in 12 for males. As for the perv factor, one in eight spins came up with something R-rated.

Given those stats, Moore doesn’t think Chatroulette will become a mainstream marketing platform. “There’s no long-term loyalty component,” he said. “Its random nature gives marketers no control in targeting gender, demographics, geography. It’s very challenging to leverage a marketing angle.”

But Moore said he’s heard other Web entrepreneurs are already looking at more sophisticated versions of Webcam chat. “We’ve heard about similar microsites that would have a very specific vertical or business-oriented purpose,” he said. “It’s extremely easy to build a Chatroulette clone.”

London-based French Connection is thought to have been the first marketer to use Chatroulette in late February, offering a £250 voucher to anyone who could submit a documented successful seduction. Jennifer Roebuck, head of e-commerce and digital marketing at French Connection, said it was a “fun experiment” because of the kind of people who show up on Chatroulette and the ability to reject them with a hit of the “next” option. Still, she’s not sure she’ll use it again: “It’s starting to feel a little mainstream now.”