Distributors are finding ways to capitalise on and measure the internet buzz of a film before its release with the help of digital marketing specialists.

Historically, word of mouth has been nearly impossible to measure or track, offering marketers only limited anecdotal information. But the advent of blogs and viral online communities such as MySpace and YouTube has created a fertile ground for internet discussion. So it is no surprise digital marketing is changing how distributors market a film. Films such as 300 have already proven that online word of mouth can be influential to a film's performance.

There are currently a number of free-to-market tools that can measure internet film buzz - blogpulse.com tracks 39 million blogs, while technorati.com claims to monitor more than 57 million, of which it believes 55% are 'active' and updated at least once every three months. But these sites are not territory-specific and do not allow for an advanced search, which leaves overall volume skewed.

Monitoring online discussions

As a result, distributors have turned to various digital publicity agencies to monitor public online discussion threads. These agencies then use proprietary software to track broad discussion around selected film titles and determine key topics of discussion while also measuring sentiment towards selected film titles. In addition, they provide qualitative analysis to identify the key factors in each film that drive the positive and negative comments.

Hugh Spearing, head of marketing at UK independent distributor Optimum Releasing, says it is imperative to have an agency working on titles constantly, now that the internet has become a virtual global water cooler.

"Distributors are spending so much more money in the online arena," he says. "So it makes sense that people want to know that the money is being spent effectively. Plus the internet is still a little more egalitarian online, so you can compete effectively in the PR and coverage arena."

Entertainment digital marketing specialist Greenroom Group recently launched Entertainment Intelligence in the UK, which specialises in advising distributors from a strategic point of view. For a particular film, the firm launches a "social media audit" that acts as a virtual internet sieve, filtering out negative and positive buzz about a film. The firm then offers distributors a strategic plan for the picture's online marketing.

Jon Hamm, CEO of Greenroom Digital, says: "Studios will now be able to see video content associated with their chosen title across all social media sites and identify the tone of the 'digital chatter' surrounding the release. This in turn provides concrete data and information on which to base its digital marketing strategy. Movie trailers, teasers, virals and games will be able to target key audiences like never before, with results available instantly for maximum reactive potential."

Interactive marketing agency Digital Outlook looks at the idea a step earlier and focuses on community engagement campaigns while working alongside specialist measurement agencies such as Nielsen's Buzz Metrics. By monitoring volume while also establishing online publicity techniques, online 'influencers' are targeted for a specific campaign. But these measurement services are not cheap - Buzz Metrics has quoted around $36,000 to track up to three film titles in a single territory.

Digital Outlook worked with Warner Bros on its 2005 Superman Returns campaign to identify five 'super fans' who had the most online knowledge and passion for the franchise. They were then given preferential Q&A access to the cast and crew and invitations to preview screenings.

Entertainment director Kate Hall says it is important to devise campaigns that will engage with people who are influential within the internet community. "Early contact with those who have a brand allegiance to a particular film is very important in this day and age, particularly with the exponential growth in the social media world."