Take a chance on wheel of online chat fortune

The random nature of fast-growing online chat site Chatroulette can help marketers understand just what consumers want.

Are you addicted to Chatroulette yet? If not, you may soon be in a minority. The video chat site only started last November, yet in January it clocked up 1 million visitors, according to comScore. While it’s nowhere near the scale of Facebook or Twitter yet, it is growing fast.

If you aren’t already online and chatting, the service involves connecting random strangers around the world through their webcams and allowing them to talk. Once connected, anonymous people can speak over video link or type messages to each other. The minute they are bored, they simply press “next” to move onto the next stranger.

The “roulette” element of the service revolves around the unpredictability of who might be connected to each other. It could be someone of the same age as you or 50 years older. Your chat companion might be two young girls giggling or a teenage boy alone in his room. And if the person doesn’t take your fancy, there’s no need to hang around.

So why should brands care about this site, which was allegedly set up by a Russian teenager? Right now it’s not an obvious marketing tool for many businesses. There are no boundaries to chat topics, so you can potentially come up against people swearing at you or even exposing themselves. Nice. It’s very much a Wild West out there.

But one British brand has made a bold move in the last week by announcing it will run a competition asking men to try and get a date on Chatroulette as part of its latest campaign. Clothes brand French Connection is diving into the environment as part of an attempt to draw attention to its men’s range.

The brand isn’t put off by the threat of risqué content or filthy-minded talkers on the site. Jennifer Roebuck, the head of ecommerce and direct marketing at French Connection, acknowledges that the brand already has a “provocative” heritage, so the unrestricted nature of the website is a good fit.

That might be true for French Connection, which plastered the word “FCUK” across its marketing and ads for many years. The clothes brand does not see the danger in getting involved in an environment where users could defame the brand or even be extremely rude to the competition entrants.

Conservative brands have more to worry about. I can’t see the likes of Coca-Cola or McDonald’s leaping into Chatroulette anytime soon. But they do need to know about it and understand how the service works and why it appeals to people – because if consumers are using it, marketers need to develop an understanding of it.

The success of Chatroulette shows that, in principle, consumers are open to video chatting on a mass scale. While this particular type of service might not suit lots of brands as it is so unregulated, it could help educate consumers about video chatting in a way that individual companies can then use themselves.

The unplanned encounter is in some ways everything that the last few years of the web have been designed to remove. These days, our online experiences are as sanitised and unsurprising as possible. Could you shake up things with a surprise or two? Imagine if KitKat offered two people the chance to live out its strapline about taking a break by funding a two-week life swap.

Imagine if you put your chief executive on camera and any consumer in the world had a chance of talking to them or asking questions. If Apple’s Steve Jobs was about to appear on Chatroulette or any other such site, I know I’d be logging on in the hope of reaching him.

For those companies too nervous to use open forums, it might be a case of taking the lessons from Chatroulette and using them on their own websites or networks. Think how many brands have taken learnings from Facebook or Twitter to their own communication hubs. Why not host your own video chat swap where people from your company interact with their interested fans?

Chatroulette also brings random encounters into people’s online experiences. The unplanned encounter is in some ways everything that the last few years of the web have been designed to remove. These days, our online experiences are as sanitised and unsurprising as possible.

After all, curated experiences are more manageable. So Facebook lets us choose from whom we wish to receive updates; and Twitter allows us to organise our flood of incoming tweets into “lists”. Every day, Google seems to have refined its search experience so we are more likely to find what we want and able to ignore less relevant details. Random experiences are fewer all the time.

But the success of Chatroulette implies that a little randomness isn’t a bad thing. It brings some excitement back into the everyday interactions that consumers have on the web. So perhaps this is a sign that brands need to allow a little bit of randomness to creep in from time to time

Could you shake up things with a surprise or two?

Chatroulette also shows that people are fascinated by other people. They want to meet them even when they don’t know them. Maybe brands could sponsor ways for people to become pen pals or even do “life swaps”. Imagine if KitKat offered two people the chance to live out its strapline about taking a break by funding a two-week life swap.

A service like Chatroulette will never be right for every brand. If too many people expose themselves on webcam, it is more likely to get shut down than make a mass impact. But the way it works offers marketers a guide to how they can better understand what consumers want. And as we all know, that’s a roulette game in its own right.

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