Close-Up: Is Chatroulette too risky as a brand platform?

The latest internet phenomenon might not be to everyone's taste, but Albion's Glyn Britton says ignore it at your peril.

Chatroulette is the latest internet phenomenon to be given extra juice by the mainstream press. And, as with any new media, it wasn't long before brands started using it to promote their services. But is that sensible?

Chatroulette is like the original, pre-Internet Explorer web. It's a place where the "free spirits" of the world can be free to express themselves with limited restrictions. Use it, and you're going to see a lot of odd people doing odd things - often based around exposing themselves in varying states of arousal.

These people aren't a conventional target audience for brands, and the things they do aren't things that brands conventionally want to be associated with. But maybe for some brands, that want to position themselves at the cutting edge, involvement with Chatroulette could be a good thing.

We recently used Chatroulette to promote the new "people-powered" mobile network giffgaff. Now, our claim to be using it to convert people was clearly tongue-in-cheek. It's a 1:1 medium, so that's a pretty inefficient way to do business.

What we're really hoping for is that the film of Pierre the Caricature Artist - who we have created to go on to the site to draw people randomly - will end up going viral, in the way that the "Piano Improv Man" clip did -

So Chatroulette can do a brand positioning job for the few brands for which being associated with an outrageously open internet platform is useful. But it holds great dangers for marketers who dabble with it without really understanding what it is. Your brand could be associated with some pretty out-there behaviour. Worse, you could look like your brand is jumping on a bandwagon that it doesn't culturally suit or, in fact, understand (ref: Habitat and Twitter, the Tories and

But Chatroulette clearly isn't a ready-to-go advertising platform. It doesn't carry any commercial messages around the content. It doesn't have any packages to sell advertisers. Hell, it doesn't even have any staff, beyond its 17-year-old founder Andrey Ternovskiy.

But this is just the most wellknown of a new wave of video chat services. Something huge is going to happen in this space. And Chatroulette is making moves to shape up for a more commercial future. It has just introduced a feature that can potentially limit the kind of stuff you'll see. Ternovskiy is currently in Silicon Valley talking to investors. And advertising-supported (along with freemium) is one of the proven business models for internet media companies.

So, it's a long odds bet, but Chat-roulette could yet be the cool name to drop on to your media plan in 2011.

- Glyn Britton is the strategic director at Albion.