Picture this: You're browsing in your favorite store -- Macy's, say, or Moosejaw -- and you stop before an item that interests you. Ping! goes your smartphone, and you find a coupon for that very item.
ESP? Big Brother? No, just the sort of interactive brand marketing made possible by the advent of smartphones and the work of companies like ePrize, the suburban Detroit firm that leads the rapidly evolving industry of helping companies connect with consumers.
Founded in 1999 by entrepreneur Josh Linkner, today the managing partner of billionaire Dan Gilbert's Detroit Venture Partners, ePrize now employs more than 400 full-time workers and operates eight offices including its headquarters in Pleasant Ridge and sites in New York, Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and Seattle.
Revenues have grown to about $70 million a year from just $200,000 in the firm's start-up year.
Once known strictly for running contests and reward-point programs for Fortune 500 firms, ePrize has morphed in recent years into a leader in social media marketing. Current CEO Matt Wise said the field is changing day by day, and ePrize plans to remain a leader.
"The smartphone fundamentally changes our ability to market to you," Wise said.
Here's how it works: From its founding, ePrize helped companies build brand loyalty through a variety of sweepstakes and other giveaways run by companies to generate buzz. In one, General Motors used ePrize-designed kiosks at Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Florida where patrons could answer a few questions for a chance to win a car.
The shortcoming of that approach was the classic problem in advertising: Companies never knew who was seeing their promotion until the consumer came in to make a purchase or sign up for the contest.
But social media like Facebook and the advent of the smartphone changed the equation. It allowed consumers to opt in to receiving messages from companies they admired, opening up a vast range of possibilities to engage with those consumers.
Take an outdoor equipment and clothing maker like Patagonia. Using the geopositioning functions of smartphones, the company can locate all the trailheads of major hiking areas and send texts to willing consumers when they reach one of those trailheads. The message could link to trail maps and to a consumer forum containing advice and comments about the trail in question.
Far from just blasting out an ad to the anonymous universe, "Now I'm a brand providing value for products you use and are enthusiastic about," Wise said.
One current client is the Henry Ford, the vast museum of Americana in Dearborn. Carol Kendra, chief marketing officer, turned to ePrize to design a sweepstakes contest that will begin July 1 in which entrants can win a VIP tour of the Henry Ford complete with free airfare on Delta and accommodations at the Dearborn Inn.
The sweepstakes becomes a sort of front door through which consumers permit the Henry Ford to learn their likes and dislikes. Kendra said ePrize has allowed the Henry Ford to target virtually one-on-one with individual consumers who choose to participate.
"Working with e-communications we can really understand what they're interested in and what they like, and we can offer them content that matches their interests," she said.
The smartphone is fundamentally changing the way a brand interacts with consumers, Wise said. "You're going to be able to figure out where that consumer is. If they need a product, you can send them a coupon right there in the store. That's going to just rock the world of how brands engage with consumers."
And the beauty of it all is that the consumer gets to choose how much engagement he or she wishes to have from Coca-Cola or Olive Garden or any of the other hundreds of Fortune 500 companies ePrize works with.
"We want the consumer to reach out to the brand," Wise said. "The more pro-active the consumer is, the more I can reward him."
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