Indirect route to customers works on Web

Businesses offer games, videos on popular sites

The sweeping success of online social networks like MySpace and Facebook has created new avenues for businesses – from New Balance to TripAdvisor – to market themselves.

Since Facebook opened up its platform to third-party users in May (allowing anyone to offer a free tool or game for Facebook users to download) Web traffic on the site has taken off at warp speed. Last month 33.7 million US Web users visited Facebook, up 46.5 percent from April, according to comScore Media Metrix, a firm that tracks Internet traffic.

One month after Facebook allowed outsiders in, TripAdvisor, the Needham-based online travel guide, launched an application called “Cities I’ve Visited,” which the company’s chief executive, Stephen Kaufer, likened to the maps children used to festoon with pins showing the different places they had visited. At last count, over 2 millions folks had installed the application on their profile page, Kaufer said.

“We certainly considered other social networks but what’s particularly appealing about Facebook now is the viral nature of the news feed,” said Kaufer. When someone installs an application, all of their friends are notified. And each time they update their profile friends are again notified which, Kaufer said, raises their curiosity. “Of all of their friends, some portion will check out and install the application, which in turn, causes more people to notice.”

Facebook is currently the sixth-most-trafficked website in the United States, with members visiting the site an average of 2.3 times a day.

Two months after TripAdvisor launched “Cities I’ve Visited,” it offered “Traveler I.Q. Challenge,” a game that users can customize to ask geography-related questions, such as where events have taken place (from historic Olympic triumphs, to college pub crawls, for example) or where places are located according to topography, world capitals, or anything the imagination can conjure up. Depending upon how quickly players can find the correct location, or how close they are on the map, they receive a certain number of points. Players compete against their friends to see who has the highest traveler I.Q. Of course, the TripAdvisor icon is on the page, so with a click of the mouse, viewers can be transported to its site.

TripAdvisor had 6 million visitors in April and jumped to 7 million in August. With over $100 million in revenue last year, Kaufer reported that it is looking at a better than 15 percent growth rate.

Boston’s Yale Appliance, a family-owned business since 1923, can now be viewed on YouTube, the social networking site created to share video. Among some of the 22 videos it has uploaded are how to choose a refrigerator, what to look for when buying an outdoor grill, and how to roast a Thanksgiving Day turkey.

YouTube had 181 million users in August, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Steven Sheinkopf, Yale’s CEO, said that he spends a good deal of time writing the company blog and researching which social networks to join next.

“Direct advertising is less credible than a peer’s recommendation,” Sheinkopf said. “It’s really just a digital version of word of mouth, which is why we have to be on it.” Sheinkopf said he’s really not actually selling anything on the sites, just advising people, which “hopefully becomes a reason for them to shop at Yale.”

Yale Appliance opened a MySpace account last month, has registered on del.ici.ous, and is exploring the social networks Digg and Reddit.

While it’s easy to measure how many hits a website or blog receives, it’s nearly impossible to measure how many sales are closed as a result of Web-based tools unless it is a mail-order item. “We’ve been told that people have purchased an item because of our blog, but I really have no idea how much of this is working at the present time,” said Sheinkopf.

When New Balance, the athletic footwear maker in Brighton, looked to reach 12- to 24-year-old athletes for its new NBzip shoe, market research showed that much of their time was being spent on the Internet, primarily within social networks, said Analesa Smith, the media director of Almighty advertising who handles the interactive campaigns for New Balance.

New Balance has a page on MySpace, featuring JD, a Porcupine who has 200 MySpace “friends.” They also advertise on Facebook.

“We have a ton of quality visits to the NBzip.com website and are getting a lot of exposure,” said Smith. “We’re able to gender target and demo target with no waste, and really focus in on our audience.” MySpace had 68 million visitors in August.

Kaufer said it was “genius” for Facebook to open up to outside developers. Other networks, including MySpace and Bebo and LinkedIn, have yet to build in the application-programming interface.

“You can put up your own simple stuff,” Kaufer said, “but nothing that spreads virally.”

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

Click here to see this article on Boston.com