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Who's your buddy?

Who's your buddy?

Send a robot to do a marketer's job? CMOs may be forgiven for raising a skeptical eyebrow. After all, who would want prissy C3PO marketing their company's products or services?

The shiny Star Wars droid is still waiting by the phone. But instant messaging robots -- interactive software agents that a user can add to a buddy list -- have already gotten the call from online marketers.

In the past year, Major League Baseball and Tyson Foods have used IM robots to market products via the massively popular AIM instant messaging service at America Online. Tyson's robot sends users recipes and helps plan meals, while MLB's robot provides scores, news and stats.

An IM robot is selected and installed by the user. While some proactively ping users who subscribe to them, others are designed to respond only when queried. This makes them particularly effective for online marketing, which is becoming more interactive, says Su Li Walker, a Yankee Group analyst. "With an IM robot, you have direct contact with the customer," she adds.

IM robots also drive more click-throughs and provide a higher ROI than do almost all other forms of online advertising, says Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president and general manager of AIM and ICQ. "They don't appear as advertising, and people don't perceive them as such," he says.

Among providers of IM communication, AOL is the most active in the IM robot space. AOL has run IM robots for itself and other online services on its AIM network for several years. In 2004 it launched a program to foster their creation and deployment, spurred in part by the success of a robot sponsored by the ABC quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Disney's Buena Vista Television launched that robot on AIM last September. The robot polls users when a contestant requests help with a particular question during taping of the show. So far, 440,000 users have added it to their AIM contact lists, according to developer Infinite Agent, which created the Millionaire, MLB and Tyson robots.

"Beyond a marketing tool, this has become a mechanism for everything from brand integration to enhanced game play. It has extended the Millionaire experience to AIM users and given us a new touch point for our viewers," says Jennie Born, Buena Vista Television's vice president of national promotions.

Dow Jones has had an AIM robot for The Wall Street Journal for about two years. The robot, which provides news alerts and stock quotes, is used to reach current and potential subscribers to WSJ.com and as an advertising platform. The robot has been so successful that Dow Jones plans to keep it active indefinitely, says Michael Henry, vice president of sales and marketing for Dow Jones Online. "It's an important place for marketers to understand because people have such an intense relationship with their instant messaging service," Henry says.

Instant messaging is such a direct medium that robots have to be developed carefully, says David Card, vice president of research development and senior analyst at JupiterResearch. The robot "can't be too aggressive or abuse the privilege. IM is intrusive by its very nature," Card adds.

But a good IM robot also has a personality and should be a quasi-human representation of the marketed brand, says Steve Klein, CEO of Conversagent, an online customer-service software company that develops IM robots. "If you build a boring robot, you're going to turn off your audience really fast," he notes.

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