Not All Fun and Games


Online contests can drive Web traffic, but companies must address problems quickly or face a torrent of "viral" criticism

James Furdell is a veteran manager of fantasy baseball teams. Along with a handful of college friends, he has participated for the past decade in online leagues hosted by ESPN. But not long after the first pitch on Opening Day this April 1, Furdell, a software engineer and Seattle Mariners fan, noticed that something wasn't quite right with his team. Much to his frustration, the roster appeared to be frozen. He couldn't snare a hot prospect or cut a fading journeyman. "I logged in and realized I couldn't make any changes once the first game had started," Furdell says. Later, when he noticed that he couldn't pick up players other teams had dropped, even days after the fact, Furdell decided to sit out the season. ESPN had a problem.

Furdell was far from alone. By the end of the first week of the baseball season, ESPN, a division of the Walt Disney Co. (DIS), acknowledged a deluge of complaints from players like Furdell. The problems couldn't have come at a worse time for the cable sports giant: This year the network offered a free version of its popular fantasy baseball game for the first time, in a bid to capture a larger share of the estimated $1.5 billion annual market in fantasy sports.

Worth the Traffic?

From virtual dugouts to simulated trading floors, the world of online games and contests have proven both a boon and a headache for some companies looking to drive traffic to their Web sites. ESPN says its free fantasy baseball game attracted eight times as many players as last year's pay version. And CNBC, a division of General Electric (GE), credits its Million Dollar Portfolio Challenge, a stock-picking contest that concluded in May, for significantly increasing traffic to its new Web site at CNBC.com. But problems plagued both promotions, as well as another stock-picking game hosted by TheStreet.com (TSCM), a financial news site.

Software flaws in CNBC's high-profile online stock-picking contest forced the financial news channel to hire securities and computer experts to investigate allegations of cheating (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/15/07, "CNBC Calls In a Judge"). And, less than two weeks later, TheStreet.com found itself in a similar situation when some contestants allegedly exploited a loophole in its Beat the Street stock-picking game to "achieve returns that could not be duplicated in the real world." The site decided that the contest's $100,000 prize would be partially rolled over to a new running of the contest.

Quieting the Megaphone of Discontent

Internet marketing gurus and experts on online life say it's essential to be proactive and keep communication open with participants in Web promotions gone awry. That's because users can easily start their own blogs, seek out online forums, or turn to video-sharing sites like YouTube (GOOG) to voice their concerns, transforming the Internet into a megaphone for their discontent. And it's especially true when promotions take the form of games that encourage players to invest a lot of time in pursuit of a big payoff—whether it's a cash prize, as in the CNBC and TheStreet.com contests, or bragging rights over college buddies and co-workers, as is often the case in fantasy sports. "In a Web 2.0 world, dissatisfaction is viral," says Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer for Nielsen BuzzMetrics.

For its part, ESPN's response was guided by a commitment to responsiveness, says John Kosner, the channel's senior vice-president for digital media. "We asked ourselves all the hard questions about what happened," Kosner says, and decided that "establishing who was to blame was not as important as fixing the problem." The problem, it turned out, involved a software overhaul designed to add features for the free game and was unrelated to increased traffic, ESPN spokesman Paul Melvin said. Besides sending players regular e-mail updates, Kosner also empowered his stable of fantasy baseball experts to communicate directly through their blogs and in chat sessions normally reserved for dispensing advice on game strategy.

Satisfying User Expectations

Companies seeking to market their brands online through interactive promotions like fantasy sports or stock-picking contests need to come to terms with their users' expectations, says Henry Jenkins, co-director of the comparative media studies department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brands might be looking to drive traffic to their Web sites, but users see themselves as more than a click; they consider themselves participants and feel partial ownership of the experience. "If you treat this as just another kind of coupon, you're going to lose in the end because you're not taking it seriously enough," says Jenkins, who has written several books about online life.

That's a different approach from CNBC and TheStreet.com, both of which disappointed participants who felt left out of the loop while the stock-picking contests' problems were investigated. Several finalists in CNBC's contest told BusinessWeek they had complained to the financial news channel about suspicious trading activity by other contestants but did not feel their complaints were being taken seriously (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/7/07, "CNBC's Easy Money"). On May 30, five days after the end of the final round, CNBC announced it was investigating "unusual trading" by some finalists; the contest's official Web site has not been updated since.

Second Try

As for TheStreet.com, editor-in-chief David Morrow's announcement was followed by the launch of a new version of the game in mid-June. Beat the Street 2.0 would feature "additional safeguards to help level the playing field for all contestants," Morrow wrote. Says Jenkins: "People will forgive you if you acknowledge a mistake and reach out to make it better as quickly as possible."

Morrow didn't return telephone or e-mail messages seeking comment, and CNBC declined to make Chief Executive Mark Hoffman or Tom Clendenin, its vice-president of marketing, available for an interview. But the channel views the Million Dollar Portfolio Challenge as an "extraordinary success," spokesman Kevin Goldman says. "There was a significant increase in [page views] for the rest of the site, not just contest-related pages. And there is a sustained increase after the contest is over," he says.

The online forum dedicated to Beat the Street at Stockpickr.com, a site affiliated with TheStreet.com, has buzzed in recent days with rumors that the game's latest iteration is suffering from problems similar to those faced by the last version.

Switching Teams

"The communication has been poor. They haven't really told us anything," says John Chalekson, a contestant in both Beat the Street contests from California who has been active in discussing the game's problems on Stockpickr.com message boards. At ESPN—although officials estimate the fantasy baseball game saw an eightfold increase in users after it became free to play this year—echoes of discontent have proliferated online.

Like many others, Furdell, the programmer and longtime fantasy player, turned to his blog to express his frustration with the ESPN game's flaws. He joined a fantasy baseball Internet message board to commiserate with fellow users. And he says that despite ESPN's response—which he ultimately found vague—and its promise of free access to premium content for all fantasy players, he and his friends will likely turn to a competitor for fantasy baseball next year. After being unable to tweak his team for much of the first two weeks of the season, Furdell quit. "All in all, it's been very disappointing," he says.

See BusinessWeek's slide show for a timeline of key events surrounding CNBC's Million Dollar Portfolio Challenge.


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