April 7, 2005
SEATTLE (AP) -- In its latest bid to make money on free Internet services, Microsoft Corp. is betting that consumers will be willing to use their instant messaging identities as billboards for products ranging from Sprite to Adidas sneakers.
The newest version of MSN Messenger instant messaging product, released late Wednesday, allows consumers to download free backgrounds, pictures and other content tied to specific ad campaigns. The hope is that users will then share those downloads with other consumers - providing another boost to advertisers, who pay Microsoft for the privilege.
Blake Irving, a corporate vice president with Microsoft's MSN online unit, said the company hopes to attract users who are so taken by the advertising campaigns that they choose to associate themselves with the brand - much like a person might buy a Starbucks Corp. coffee mug.
Microsoft is launching the program with German sportswear maker Adidas Salomon-AG and Sprite, made by Coca-Cola Co.
Analyst Charlene Li with Forrester Research said Yahoo Inc.'s messaging service has been providing a similar service for some time. She expects such tactics to be successful with brand brands like Nike Inc. or PepsiCo Inc.'s Mountain Dew that people think are cool.
"The fact of the matter is people have very strong affinities for brands," she said.
Irving said the company also is expanding other advertising functions. That includes gearing ads to users it believes are of a certain age or gender, or who live in a specific area. The company also will begin putting text ads at the bottom of instant messaging screens.
Microsoft also is releasing the official first version of MSN Spaces, a free personal Web journal system that debuted in test form in December. As part of an advertising campaign, Ford Motor Co.'s Volvo Cars of North America is debuting its own "space" that will solicit commentary from Volvo loyalists. Irving said Volvo will have editorial control of the posts.
Li said such sites represent the future of corporate blogging, in which "customers do the marketing for them."
The moves come as companies search for new ways to reach consumers who are increasingly avoiding ads on television and elsewhere.
"It's getting harder and harder to reach people, so the appeal of something like a messenger is that it's putting the marketer into places where you couldn't see them before," Li said.