Staff Reporter

You're a 16-year-old kid. You think Insane Clown Posse is the greatest collection of musical geniuses to arise this century. You haven't cleaned your room in six years. The closest thing you've ever had to a job is the five bucks a week your dad gives you to pick up after the dog.

Believe it or not, you have commercial value.

In fact, there is a company in Silverlake that will pay you (not in money, but in "swag" cool stuff like Insane Clown Posse T-shirts, free CDs, concert tickets, etc.) to do exactly what you were already doing for nothing: talk to perfect strangers on the Internet about your favorite band.

The company is M80 Interactive Marketing, one of the more creative and some would say insidious marketing firms anywhere.

In an era when advertising has lost much of its effectiveness because young consumers no longer trust such messages, word of mouth has become one of the most important means of selling a product particularly when it comes to entertainment offerings like movies and records. "The Blair Witch Project" is only the latest example of a movie that initially didn't have much marketing support but exploded in popularity because of strong word of mouth.

In the past, you didn't hire a marketing firm to start word of mouth; it either happened or it didn't. But that was before the Internet.

Now you can buy word of mouth, which is M80's business model.

The company was started less than a year ago by Dave Newpert, former new-media chief at Madonna's record label, Maverick Records. Newpert had so much success selling Maverick artists over the Internet that he decided to go independent and use many of the tricks that he learned or developed.

The first thing M80 does is look for the most rabid fans of a given client on the Web. If they represent, say, the band Insane Clown Posse (which they have), M80 marketers will go to bulletin boards, chat rooms and other fan sites dedicated to that band and look for people who seem really enthusiastic.

Then they recruit the person by offering inside information and lots of free stuff. They supply CDs by the artist weeks before their initial release, specifically so these guerilla marketers can talk about how great it is. The kids and these people are usually kids under 18 are also given a database full of chat sites and asked to go there to talk about the artist. Since it doesn't do much good for them to talk about Insane Clown Posse in a chat room already dedicated to that band, they are asked to talk about the band at sites dedicated to similar groups.

"For a 16-year-old kid, it's thrilling," Newpert said. "They might get a signed poster or something from the band."

It doesn't just work for music; M80 does the same thing for movies. Right now it's representing the film "Bowfinger," looking for guerilla marketers at fan sites dedicated to stars Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy and encouraging them to spread the word about the movie all over the Web.

"It's devious," said Jeannine Parker, principal with the J Parker Co., a new-media consulting firm in Santa Monica. "We've got a tremendous problem believing what we read on the Internet already. They're really leveraging the credibility of these people for marketing purposes, which I think presents an ethical question."

Ethics, schmethics, Newpert responds.

"Chances are, (Parker's) probably not 18," Newpert said. "There's nothing wrong, in my opinion, with helping to empower the fan base that already exists. These kids will do anything for these artists it's like idol worship."

Having hundreds of "employees" who work essentially for nothing makes M80 a very cost-effective operation. It charges only $5,000 to $7,000 a month for its services a bargain compared to other marketing methods like advertising or P.R.

Newpert says the nine-employee company will probably take in between $800,000 and $1 million in revenues in its first year. Its clients are most of the biggest record labels, including A & M;, Capitol Records, Warner Bros. and Interscope, as well as movie studio Columbia-TriStar Pictures.

M80's technique, Parker says, is similar to a method known as "seeding the Web." Marketers send their employees to news groups and chat rooms to talk about a product, such as a Web site or film they're trying to promote. But seeding has declined in popularity because the level of mistrust on the Internet has increased, Parker says. If chatters suspect someone is a paid marketer, they'll tune him out pretty fast.

Newpert agrees, but says that's what makes his system so sensible. He's not using outside marketers who might be recognized as such, he's using people who belong.

"We don't want to direct (the kids we recruit) as far as what they're saying, because then it might not ring true," Newpert said. "If you enter certain communities on the Web and you're not really part of that community, you can get ostracized pretty quickly. But these kids are part of the community already."

Parker and other Internet consultants are hard pressed to think of other companies that offer the same services as M80, though Newpert says most of the record labels do some form of "viral marketing" getting fans to sell the artist. But the new-media departments at most labels are tiny, Newpert says, so these companies find it's more efficient to farm the work out to M80.

The idea behind M80 sprung from some of the real-world marketing methods that record companies have been using for years. It's long been standard procedure for labels to offer "swag" to devoted young fans who are willing to go to concerts and pass out cassettes, flyers and marketing materials dedicated to a different artist in the same genre. For example, kids might get free concert tickets for going to a Megadeth show and passing out materials promoting Insane Clown Posse. The Web just makes it easier to find those devoted fans, and more efficient for them to spread the word.

Of course, M80's services alone aren't enough to sell a product. You still need advertising, P.R. and other old-media marketing methods. But it is a new part of the mix for some advertisers. "We're not looking at millions of impressions, we're looking at thousands of impressions but in a very valuable group," Newpert said.

Like it or not, Internet marketing and the discovery of increasingly sneaky ways of doing it are only going to become more intense.

"This kind of thing is hugely significant," said Jim Dolbear, managing director of new-media consulting firm the Larkin Group in Santa Monica. "This society is somehow spreading information in this organic way. If you could master that, and find out who the leaders are, you could really make your product take off."

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