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by Gouri Shah

Mumbai: India’s cricket captain M.S. Dhoni and actor Saif Ali Khan will stop at nothing—stick out tongues at each other or call each other names—to get the flavour they favour of a potato chips brand voted the flavour of the month.

Interestingly, the TV commercial for Frito Lays potato chips marketed by Pepsico India Holdings Pvt. Ltd has an online avatar at www.whatstheprogram.com, where viewers are urged to cast their votes for the flavour they like.

It is one of the many brands that are seeing the benefits of launching campaign specific micro-websites, or linking their mainstream ads to these sites in the belief that it not only taps into the interest created by a new advertising campaign but also helps consumers get right to the product information they want, rather than having to wade through a corporate website.

This is a trend, experts say, that has gained momentum with the increasing popularity of search engines such as Yahoo! and Google.

“It’s about an attitudinal shift from browsing to searching,” says Prasanth Mohanachandran, executive director of digital services at Ogilvy and Mather India Ltd.

In the past few years, Mohanachandra says, consumers have started seeking specific content and information online. It is probably why companies are scrambling to communicate their brand values in the best possible way—specific, easy-to-access and engaging.

This is where micro-sites—based more on ad campaigns and tag lines, rather than the company or brand name—come in.

“Such micro-sites get smaller things, such as features of a brand, optimized and showcased better,” Mohanachandran says.

A case in point is that of the online brokerage Sharekhan Ltd, which set up three different sites to cater to different sets of consumers—beginners, investors and traders. The micro-site for beginners, which was advertised along with the company’s ad campaign, steers clear of financial jargon and encourages visitors to fill out their contact details. Within 72 hours, a representative from the company visits them to educate and initiate them into the trading process.

A micro-site could also help launch a new campaign, exemplified by mobile telephony service provider Idea Cellular’s site called www.whatanidea.co.in featuring Abhishek Bachchan, computer chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s www.askvishy.com featuring their brand ambassador chess grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand, or Lux beauty soap’s site www.xappeal.in.

A micro-site could even help launch a new product or variant, as was the case with a now defunct Hindustan Unilever Ltd’s brands Ponds’ website www.iblushed.com.

Then again, such websites may carry forward a brand’s core tag line, as in cigarette maker ITC Ltd’s food division’s www.bingeonbingo.com or Cadbury India Ltd’s www.meethamoments.com.

Whatever the purpose, these campaign-specific micro-sites are being used as a cost-effective and sticky medium for brands to engage with their target consumers and communicate all aspects of the brand, which may not be possible to do in a 30-second advertisement on television.

While most companies are armed with a basic corporate site that exalts the benefits of their brands and what they do for the consumer, campaign-centric sites create a strong interface with consumers, are more interactive and can also prove to be a great medium for market research through consumer feedback, say experts.

Tata Motor Ltd’s small car Tata Nano is a case in point. For the first 12 hours, people around the world were logging onto www.tatapeoplescar.com to check out the $2,500 car. The site ran several contests that encouraged consumers to name a celebrity who was the best match for the car (cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s “common man” won) and a tag line for the car, and even sought feedback on colours and accessories.

The same goes for Frito Lays, which is currently using its micro-site to get consumer feedback on two potato chip flavours the company has launched.

“It’s always a challenge for an iconic brand to continue being relevant for its target audience. Especially when its target audience is the youth,” says Shavon Barua, vice-president and client services director, JWT India, who works on the brand.

The ad agency created the micro-site to stay connected with their brand’s core audience who were spending more time online than they were in front of the television. “We realized that this was a key medium, and a great place to interact with the youth. Any piece of communication that puts them in-charge has always been met with high interest,” Barua said.

Industry watchers, however, say that while a micro-site is a great medium to interact with consumers, illustrate and articulate what the brand stands for, and create purchase intent, few companies are willing to go that extra mile.

Sometimes the spends on this count are as low as 1% of all media spends, says Mohanachandran.

More often than not, sites launched with much fanfare are eventually allowed to die due to lack of sustained support from the client.

“Don’t create a throw-away site. That is a complete waste of everyone’s time and money,” says Mahesh Murthy, chief executive officer of digital advertising firm Pinstorm.