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Grabbing The Grassroots


When Paramount Pictures () started planning the marketing campaign for its hip-hop film Hustle & Flow before its release in July, online advertising was a given. After all, 67% of moviegoers these days get information about films online. What was trickier was figuring out where to advertise. High-traffic sites like Yahoo! Inc. () and MSN () can be pricey and clogged with clutter. Plus, the target audience was young urban males 13 to 24, perhaps not a large part of MSN visitors.

So Paramount decided to take a flyer on a new service from Google Inc. (). Called site targeting, the service creates specialized networks of what are often small online sites and blogs, the kind of content increasingly soaking up Net surfers' attention. Now this relationship with Google is remaking the way the movie studio and distributor promote every film. And it's among the first examples of how the search engine, through a new service for advertisers, is finally able to bundle the shards and splinters of digital media into manageable packages. The end result is that the smallest Webzines and blogs can better vie with cable networks and magazines for ad dollars.

With Hustle & Flow, Paramount had the ideal test case for this kind of advertising. The film is about a Memphis pimp who aspires to be a rap singer, specifically a performer of "crunk," a Dixie-originated hip-hop genre marked by lurching beats and bellowed choruses. Hustle & Flow was a blowout hit at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, but Paramount couldn't count on that industry buzz making it to the grass roots of crunk enthusiasts the movie studio wanted to reach.

Bag the Blog

Enter Google. Using key words such as crunk, Memphis, and the names of some stars in the movie, Ludacris and Terrence Howard, Google combed through the sites, blogs, and message boards in its network, which it initially assembled by signing up individual sites. For Paramount, Google located around 250 candidates. The studio sifted through those choices, eliminating bawdy sites in favor of music blogs and fan sites. Then it homed in on key markets, including Detroit and Los Angeles, where the movie was being released. In the end, Paramount picked 170 sites, such as Realest Niggas, Atlanta Urban Mix, and uEmcee, that hadn't been on its radar before.

Small turned out to be big for Paramount. Although some of the tinier sites might only attract a thousand or so individual visitors a month, Paramount says the network worked out perfectly. Surveys of people leaving the theater after the movie during the first week found that 35% had been spurred by the Internet to see the flick. So far, the small-budget indie film has grossed $22.2 million. For Amy Powell, vice-president of interactive marketing at the studio, it's all part of coping with the fragmentation of the media landscape. "We reached sites where highly networked Web editors and fans are going," Powell says.

Google's ability to bundle big numbers of small sites based on hobby or passion is a topic of much chatter on Madison Avenue. Google says it developed the service to cater to advertisers clamoring for more control over where their ads were being placed. Unlike Google's AdWords program, where advertisers pay per click, the cost of marketing on the site targeting network is based on a fixed price per thousand ads displayed.

Judging by Paramount's reaction, that's a winning formula. Site targeting is now a standard part of its movie marketing. It followed the same model with last summer's Four Brothers, a film that starred Mark Wahlberg. For the sci-fi thriller Aeon Flux, which is based on the MTV animated series, it has pieced together a roster of hundreds of sites devoted to comic books and horror films.

More companies are following suit. And step by step, the Net is making it easier for advertisers to go beyond simple demographics and tailor marketing to customers' passions.

By David Kiley


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