If Don Draper, the Madison Avenue powerhouse of "Mad Men" fame, were around today to tap the power of social media, he might unleash a campaign that looked something like Shopularity. Draper told stories about products. Shopularity, the brainchild of programmer Jordan Holberg, gives people a way to tell their own stories about products.
Shopularity describes itself as a popularity contest, version 2.0. Individuals compete to win free, high-end products, like iPads or designer handbags, with the person who tallies the most votes walking away with the prize. The company launched in May of this year and is being funded by Holberg, who so far has purchased all the prizes, but hopes to attract funding and partners to provide future goodies.
The marketing magic comes in how Shopularity turns consumers into evangelists for a brand, each contestant vying to outdo the others with personal ad campaigns that pitch friends and family on why the contestant must have the gadget or garment on offer.
"People trust their friends over companies," said Shama Kabani, the head of the digital marketing firm Marketing Zen and author of "The Zen of Social Media Marketing." "We've seen an almost 50 percent increase in clients inquiring about digital PR -- reaching out to bloggers and leveraging people's influence or status to drive a grassroots effort."
To win votes, Shopularity contestants use any means they can imagine to convince anyone else who will listen why the item being offered is the ultimate must-have for them. Users have posted YouTube videos of their pleas, recruited friends to post tweets and even promised perks in exchange for votes, such as pledging to donate $100 to an animal shelter if they win.
"All the content users create is basically a giant ad for a product. That's viral marketing and word-of-mouth marketing the way it was supposed to be," said Holberg, pitching his own product. "You're turning these fans and followers into your most passionate and evangelical consumers. They're walking, talking advertisements for you that are not just putting your message out there, but putting your message out there in a way that gets their friends' attention."
Critics suggest that Shopularity's barrage of "vote for me!" pleas will annoy the contestants' online acquaintances and drive people from the site. But Holberg said contestants have an incentive to create compelling "commercials" to win votes.
Some contestants' "war cries" -- Shopularity's term for the short pitches that individuals feature on their profiles to solicit votes -- do sound like slogans for the products being offered.
"Perfect for a new mom! Help me kick butt in the kitchen with a little on on my hip," said Cassie B. about the KitchenAid mixer.
"I would SOO LOVE to win this so cooking and baking is easier!!!" wrote one of Cassie's rivals.
Shopularity's broad-based approach, which allows anyone to sign up for a chance to win a product, contrasts with another new online marketing strategy: targeting people who are considered influential in their fields, from food to fashion, and offering them freebies in the hopes these individuals will endorse a brand's goods.
Marketing experts say that one of Shopularity's greatest flaws is its failure to give companies a way to identify and reach the people they most want to woo.
"The level of quality of the people you're attracting is debatable. This KitchenAid mixer is a product for the cooking connoisseur. You're attracting individuals who just are trying to win the product," said Kabani. "What this site is missing is relevancy."
Holberg argued that Shopularity will help surface popular individuals, those who have clout with their peers and charisma -- exactly the type of influential customer companies are seeking. "This is a great way to identify people with spheres of influence," he said.
Experts also ask whether contests can ever do more than distribute free products to lucky winners and doubt that, even with the additional social media connections that Shopularity provides, the site can attract consumers who will become paying customers.
"Contests don't bring in new people who want to buy," said Peter Shankman, a marketing expert and social media strategist. "They bring in people who want to win free shit."