Sun Throws A Tupperware Party For Java

Armed with a survey that showed 86% of consumers have heard of Java, and that 33% prefer products that use the technology, Sun marched up to the Blu-ray consortium's leadership team and asked them to brand the next-generation optical disc format with the Java logo. "They first asked us what we would pay, but when we showed them the survey, they agreed to do it for free," says Mark Herring, senior director of Java brand marketing for Sun.

Herring had never thought of Java as a consumer brand until four years ago, when a colleague's child asked him where to find more Java games. "That was my 'aha' moment, because why Java? This wasn't a computer nerd, just a kid," says Herring. Upon probing, it turned out that the young game player felt that Java games "were much cooler than others." "He basically articulated a whole strategy for developing general consumer interest in the brand," says Herring.

That was the dawn of a new era in Java marketing, which was to develop a consumer community that would spread the word about the escalating number of Java-based products being developed across a variety of industries, including entertainment, education, government, transportation, finance, telecommunications, and more.

At the heart of this strategy was the establishment of a place where Java enthusiasts can go to talk to each other, swap insights, download the latest games, and try out spotlighted applications. Currently featured is "Airport Monitor," which provides users with a dynamic interactive display of air traffic and flight information for major U.S. airports.

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Not incidentally, ideas for improvements to existing Java-based products are in abundance--as are recommendations for new products.

With more than 15 million unique visitors every month, Sun considers the site an "enormous success," says Herring, who says the goal, from Sun's perspective, is that the more people talk about Java, the more infrastructure the company can sell--which, after all, is how it makes its money.

But despite the success of the site, Herring wanted more. "We wanted to understand more precisely how word of mouth about Java was working," he says. He turned to BzzAgent, a word-of-mouth marketing firm (see main article, "Beyond Viral: Using The Web To Nurture 'Contagious Behavior' Among Customers") to employ volunteer "agents" to go out and try to spread the word about Java to other consumers using face-to-face rather than online encounters During the 12-week campaign, 1,100 self-selected agents spread out across the country, introduced their friends, relatives, and co-workers to, and encouraged them to log on. Everyone who was "buzzed" was then asked to detailed reports on their reactions to the site.

Based on field reports, Sun estimates the low-tech word-of-mouth campaign spread to nearly 34,000 people.

"And not only did we reach those consumers, we learned a lot about how to improve the site, about making it more interactive, and emphasizing Java as used for mobile browsing and game playing," says Herring.

One thing that was nervous-making, says Herring: BzzAgent won't take your money unless you are "buzzable"--that is, unless sufficient numbers of buzz agents actually volunteer to work on behalf of your product. "We were excited that so many signed up," he says. "That was good validation."