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She Builds Online Brands on the Street

Di-Ann Eisnor is a master at persuading busy people to pay attention to digital brands. Her secret? If you want to move people to the virtual world, move your messages to the physical world. Here’s how to GetReal.com.

For two weeks last summer, commuters in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were held captive by a haunting question: “Hello, is anybody out there?” The sentence was plastered on posters and stickers, spray painted on sidewalks, and carried on sandwich boards by people dressed in white. There was no company name, no clue other than a URL. Yet the site got more than 100,000 hits, and the campaign generated media buzz and commentary on the Today show.

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After days of suspense, the question was answered with a resounding “Yes” — and an advertising blitz to announce that MiningCo.com, an Internet-search company, was changing its name to About.com. But beyond the campaign, the more important question may be, How do you get consumers to pay attention to — and even talk about — your brand in a world cluttered with hundreds of TV channels and millions of Web sites?

Not just by clamoring for attention, insists Di-Ann Eisnor, 27, whose agency engineered About.com’s campaign. “The challenge is teaching a new behavior,” she says. “How do you interact with something that’s not physical? How do you have a relationship with a digital brand?”

According to Eisnor, the best digital brands don’t focus on moving from the brick-and-mortar world to the point-and-click space. “It’s about creating a unified experience that cycles between where the consumer lives and where the site exists,” she says. That’s why she founded Eisnor Interactive (EI) in 1997 as the first offline promotions agency for online brands. Eisnor’s New York City-based firm has gained notoriety for street-level stunts that get people talking — and cost about one 1/100th the price of a standard national media buy.

EI’s tactics have become the first stop for a group of digital brands as diverse as Polaroid, Compaq, eGift.com, Reebok, and Staples.com, all of which are seeking that elusive magic called word of mouth. EI’s billings have grown from $1 million to $15 million and are projected to exceed $40 million next year; the agency has expanded with offices in Boston and San Francisco.

The EI approach leverages two ironies of the Internet era: First, the best place to connect with customers in an increasingly global world is at the hyperlocal level; and second, the more physical and visceral an experience, the bigger the impact it will have in the virtual world. “The question we’re always asking is, What is the point of sale for an Internet company?” says Eisnor. “Once you get inside a consumer’s day, you discover a point-of-sale wonderland.”

In creating a campaign for New York Today, a New York Times Web site, EI targeted busy urban professionals during the morning commute by using a new media channel: coffee cups. By printing a special offer and a unique URL on traditional NYC coffee cups, “we gave the right group of people a message in a place that happens to be uncluttered, which they then take back to their office and set beside their computer,” she says.

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Just as important as the granularity of location, says Eisnor, is the power of the performance. “We’re all about creating unique, real-life, tangible, 3-D experiences. The message is, We know who you are, where you are, and what’s on your mind. That’s the whole idea of getting down to the street.”

To better understand its customers’ customers, the team sets up “field offices” — in grocery stores and at Wall Street newsstands. When the Eisnor team goes farther afield, it can grab items from its “global mobility arsenal” — which includes a wide range of microrecorders, digital cameras, modems, and adapters for every country — as the team races out the door to the airport.

“There’s no such thing as an established brand in the Web world,” says Eisnor. “Unless you’re constantly reinventing how you connect with customers, they will walk. We’re in a continual fight for relevance; it’s brutal — and exciting.”

Contact Di-Ann Eisnor by email (diann@eisnor.com), or visit Eisnor Interactive on the Web (www.eisnor.com).

Sidebar: The Art of Promotion

Eisnor Interactive treats marketing like performance art. It even has a costume designer on staff: Terence Gower, a conceptual artist who has shown his work in galleries and museums around the world.

As EI’s creative producer, Gower oversees the 3-D element of every campaign — from samplers, to props, to set design. Here are his rules for effective promotions.

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Engage all the senses.

“Consumers have become good at filtering out the messages that bombard their eyes and ears. We always put samples into people’s hands. Our business cards have a scratch-off oval on the back with a message underneath that reads, ‘If we got you to do this, we’ll get them to your site.’ “

Keep to the concept.

“As an artist, I’m always going back to the essence of a project. We did a program for Staples.com at Internet World. We began working from the theme of utility, convenience, and a do-it-yourself attitude, so we skipped the glitz of the typical booth and created a dusty supply closet.”

Work the street appeal.

“We define ‘street’ as edgy and grounded. At the Internet World launch of another client, iCast, a create-your-own-movie site, EI sent people out wearing orange jumpsuits. They shot footage of Internet World, which was later shown on the iCast Web site.”

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Contact Terence Gower by email (tgower@eisnor.com).

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