Conversational Marketing's Battle Royale

A few months ago, the marketing crew at Toshiba and their agency, nFusion, showed us some of their print ads built around the word innovation

. The concept isn’t innovation as in “our batteries last 4% longer,” but rather innovation as aspiration, as a dream for the future.

How could that message play out as conversational marketing, they asked? How could we spark a genuine conversation among people who care deeply about technology — famous gadget bloggers and ordinary geek citizens — that would inspire Toshiba’s product development teams (and the rest of us) to think big? And when they asked those questions, they also told us something that made all the difference: We’re not joking; we want innovative thinking and we’re willing to take the necessary risks.

Tech Battle Royale So we invited the Ninja (of Ask A Ninja) to emcee a Tech Battle Royale — the site launched last week — among a handful of gadget gurus, industrial-design visionaries and do-it-yourselfers who like to build their own dream gadgets from spare parts. As part of Toshiba’s sponsorship, the Ninja throws down a new gauntlet each week — he poses a question in the post-roll sponsorship segment of his video program. The first two questions: “What technology from TV, movies or books would you most like to see become a reality?” and “How can we better use technology to preserve the environment?” A handful of FM authors submit answers on the Tech Battle Royale site, sponsored by Toshiba, where visitors can vote for their favorites or submit their own suggestions.

Simple but smart. Here’s why.

While Toshiba underwrites the conversation and its brand benefits from association with it, they leave the content of the conversation to outside thought leaders. They’re not trying to spark a conversation about the comfortable feel on your fingertips of Toshiba keyboards, but rather to create a place for gear lovers to share hopes and dreams about a better world through tech. By keeping it authentic and vendor-neutral, Toshiba attracts voices from well beyond the core authors — more than 200 visitors unaffiliated with the sponsorship program submitted entries in the first week, and more than 1000 weighed in with votes.

Second, since the conversation is built around content by participating authors — their own content with their names next to it — and visitors to the site can vote for their favorites, the competitive juices start to flow. Deane Barker at Gadetopia wants his readers to vote for his ideas, so he blogs about the contest with a tongue-in-cheek hard sell: “I’ll make it easy for you: my answer is always best. Go vote for me.” Not to be outdone, the team at UberGizmo links to the Tech Battle Royale contest at the top of their homepage. And surprise, surprise — UberGizmo won the first week’s battle.


To be clear, the terms of Toshiba’s sponsorship include banner ads and an agreement to answer questions the Ninja poses — Toshiba doesn’t attempt to buy influence over any editorial content or pay for links on any of the participating sites. With campaigns like this, FM recommends that authors disclose the sponsorship details to their readers for the sake of full transparency. The extra efforts by Gadgetopia, UberGizmo and others are added-value bonuses, done by participating authors because they are genuinely having fun with the concept. Fun that turns into web momentum.

One participating author, Eric Wilhelm of Instructables, asks his readers directly for help answering the questions. Here’s the question from week one, and here’s week two. Sixty-five Instructables readers contribute ideas to the first and 77 do for the second. And wait a second, is this cheating?! Instructables is posting in advance three more questions (here, here, and here) and already 89, 23 and 14 suggestions have been submitted, respectively. What does Toshiba get out of a conversation on Instructables they had a hand in starting? A core group of the Instructables community is spending serious time on a page that, per Eric’s disclosure at the top of the page, calls out Toshiba. Several comments then talk about the Tech Battle Royale site itself, which drives additional visitors to the contest, including a few who go back to Instructables to say they’ve voted for one of the ideas born of the Instructables conversation. In other words, Toshiba’s marketing conversation spreads onto the pages of Instructables. Meanwhile, Eric does something right by involving his readers — he’s riding high in 4th place!


Another participating author, perhaps to drive more votes to his or her entry, submits the contest to Digg, though the Digg link appears to benefit all contestants equally. In the process, Toshiba’s Tech Battelle Royale makes its way onto Digg organically. If instead Toshiba staffers tried to plug their own marketing campaign, they’d risk an unsavory backlash on the pages of Digg.

And, finally, the campaign makes its way into the online press. Robert Seidman picks it up on August 27:

“Sometimes I think my brain is so well trained to ignore marketing (it’s not perfect, I do have an iPhone) that my eyes don’t even notice it. There are definitely a couple of FM Campaigns that I’d put in the conversational marketing realm. One is very, very well done in terms of doing something new and that’s the FM: Tech Battle Royale (brought to you by Toshiba). It’s true three-way conversational marketing and I’d like to learn how the campaign fared someday.”

Robert, stay tuned!

(Note: The creative thinking by the FM team was led by Lester Lee.)

  1. # Andru Edwards said: September 10th, 2007 at 1:33 am

    Whoa – that is actually pretty cool! I like it.

    Although, it does suck that we weren’t invited to participate… :P

  2. # Chas said: September 13th, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    Andru–Given our shared last name, I was worried I’d be accused of favoritism. ;) As this program moves from its test phase into a larger roll-out, I hope Gear Live will join the fun!

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