Reflected glory marketing versus the heavy hand of the brand

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Over at the Jackson Fish Market blog, Hillel Cooperman makes a strong case that "software is an untapped and exponentially powerful medium in which to convey messages and values for brand advertisers." He points to Burger King's videogaming endeavours, but says his argument extends to the web as well.

His examples: Lincoln's My Dream and Vancity's And damned if he doesn't get exactly when Vancity (and we) had in mind when we built it:

The Vancity folks understand all that's necessary is an association with the goodwill generated by the site’s existence. In fact, the Vancity folks understand quite a bit - namely that the best way to get continued interest in their site (while accruing value to their brand) is to rely on the community to truly power the site with their content and stories.

We've been referring to that as reflected glory marketing, and it turns the conventional wisdom about sponsoring this kind of initiative on its head.

Supposedly, you maximize your return on your investment in something you're supporting (whether it's a web site, a run for the cure or the new wing of a university library) by slapping your logo everywhere you can, the bigger the better.

But online communities – really interesting ones – are a lot less likely to grow and thrive if you brand a site so heavily that users never feel any ownership over it. Sometimes your best bet is to acknowledge your role and then step out of the way, allowing the success of your community to speak for itself... and reflect well on your brand.

Cooperman (who headed up the user experience crew on Microsoft Windows Vista) compares that approach to the way Lincoln handles My Dream. It's well worth reading... although I have to admit he broke my heart when he revealed that My Dream's gorgeous front page area map is actually statically rendered. (Honestly, it was like finding out the truth about Santa Claus. Deep down, the five-year-old inside me still wants to believe that tag clouds could be this beautiful.)

His key insight is this:

I would bet good money that both Lincoln and VanCity feel that their endeavors were a success. I bet both feel like the exposure they got was relatively cheap compared to other methods they use. But I also claim that if Lincoln saw VanCity’s engagement numbers - average minutes per session, page views per unique visit, repeat visits per user, etc., they would be deeply jealous of what the VanCity folks had accomplished. And I believe this would still be the case despite the fact that MyDream has gotten way more traffic overall (due to Lincoln’s larger ability/effort to drive distribution).

Thanks, Hillel... and thanks, Vancity. We're tremendously proud of this project: both because of what it has achieved, and because of the faith our client has consistently shown in the power of online community.

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