How to chat up a superstar

George Michael's done it. So has Noel Gallagher. It seems you can't log on these days without bumping into a celebrity in a chat room.
It's official. Not only does George Michael sing, hang out in toilets and dance (sort of), but he gives good web chat, too. In an admirable display of keyboarding, Michael tapped out answers to 38 questions posed by some 9,000 fans who joined him at the end of July for a two-hour online chat. Fans as diverse as Denise van Outen and a hyphen from China turned up to the event, which became the largest music celebrity web chat ever.

Coming hard (as it were) on the heels of Michael's spectacular debacle in a Los Angeles loo, the event was a miracle of timing. It gave Michael direct, if virtual, contact with his fans at a sensitive moment in his career, and in what is often perceived as a more intimate format than radio, print or TV.

Celebrity web chats are becoming a regular feature of the online landscape, and it's not hard to see why. They offer both the celebrity machine - publicists, record or film companies, merchandisers - and the participating Internet service provider enormous opportunities for promotion, merchandising and ad sales while adding value to their web sites. According to Niall MacAnna, special events producer for Microsoft Network, which, together with record company Aegean, orchestrated the George Michael chat, the event added "thousands" of new users to MSN's portal site, MSN Start, as well as hiking sales of CDs and merchandise on both MSN and Aegean's retail sites. MSN was also name-checked by The Big Breakfast and GMTV, which ran parallel features and competitions.

"We had mentions in newspapers and radio programmes in the UK alone that had a combined reach of 13 million, which doesn't include the Reuters news feed to 80 different countries or the constant news reports on Radio 1, GLR and Capital," says MacAnna. Which was all good, uhm, exposure for George Michael.

Unsurprisingly, AOL, Virgin Net and CompuServe have also got in on the celebweb act, hosting and sponsoring web chats with stars as diverse as Noel Gallagher and Uri Geller. What is more surprising is that only MSN has so far really run with the idea.

Three of the largest celebweb events ever staged - The X-Files, George Michael and James Cameron, director of Titanic - have been developed, promoted and administered by MSN here in the UK. That they were staged here and not by MSN in the US is in part a testament to the vision of MSN UK and in part a lucky geographical quirk. Competition for stars is fiercer in the US, and media outlets are more scattered. Whereas touring celebrities may bypass MSN's headquarters in Seattle, MSN UK is based in London and so more accessible both to our own home-grown talent and to any visiting movie and music stars.

The MSN UK genius, though, is to have developed, in MacAnna's words, "commercially driven chat". In the past, ISPs relied on a TV model of content provision, producing high-value online "programming" in the hope of attracting viewers and advertisers. Chat rooms were the backstage areas - dark, neglected and often rather grubby spaces intended to provide added value for bored office workers, geeks and lonely hearts.

It's now clear that the TV model didn't work. The Net turned out to be better suited to many-to-many communication than to broadcast. Interactivity and multi-functionality became the watchwords and ISPs like MSN were forced to switch tactics, concentrating instead on providing multi-function, content-rich portals to lure in the mouse potatoes.

The folk at MSN UK, while following the snazzy portal model, turned at the same time to the potential of snazzy chat. "No one else was really considering the possibility that chat could provide the commercial edge," claims MacAnna. Celebrities would be the draw, but chat would actually be the business. A promotional partnership with Hotmail gave MSN UK a link to 18 million active accounts. "And we decided to make the medium sing."

If all this sounds like opportunity pie, it is. In "going for the biggest possible targets and hoping to get lucky", as MacAnna puts it, MSN had nothing to lose. "Without wishing to be disrespectful, a webcast for Titanic uses more or less the same resources as [one for] Lee Hurst."

Other UK-based ISPs have been more tentative in their approach to celebweb chats. Virgin Net webcast events do carry advertising and, says James Cronin, Virgin's new technology manager, "we've had some effective sponsorship in kind. For our webcast from V98, for example, One-to-One gave us some of the mobile phone technology we used to webcast from the crowd and JVC gave video kit."

AOL has taken a different approach, tending to view celebweb as wholly a service to members. "We're a closed system and obviously that does limit us if a celebrity wants maximum access," admits Simon Raven, a producer at AOL UK. Commercialising web chats is, he says, "more of a future thing. We're testing the system out and getting a feel for what our members want."

So far, MSN UK's aggressive webceleb strategy appears to have paid off. Earlier this year, in the face of fierce competition from AOL in the US, MSN UK won exclusive rights to webcast The X-Files live chat. "We won because MSN is out on the free Internet and not behind an exclusive membership enclosure, and because we were able to put a major global deal together to promote the event across all Microsoft properties and partner sites," says Niall MacAnna. The event became the largest single production ever staged by a UK ISP.

In comparison with many of its predecessors, The X-Files webcast really was out there. In addition to ad banner displays across Microsoft properties like Game Zone, MSNBC and the MSN sites in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany, France and the UK, MSN co-promoted with Hotmail, giving it a combined reach of 21 million members and accounts in 242 countries. MSN also promoted the online event with X-Files owners, Twentieth-Century Fox. From there, publicity fanned out across the worldwide Murdoch media empire. "The X-Files Netshow, testing, ad banners, editorial support and so on had a media value of $600,000," reckons MacAnna.

On the day of the event, four cameras filmed stars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny tapping in their responses to online questions from a studio in Hollywood. MSN supplied 9,000 live online video streams in addition to its Netshow webcast, which in turn attracted 21,000 separate cyberspace identities. As well as being able to pose questions in eight languages, and view the stars responding, those who logged on to the event were able to chat among themselves using MSN's Webchat software.

Another smart move has been to locate MSN's big-splash events in free space and promote them globally. By being able to promise (and deliver) large audiences, MSN has been able to hike its advertising revenues. Says Niall MacAnna: "For special events [advertising rates] were pounds 10,000 before The X-Files. They've been pounds 25,000 since."

The celebrities themselves seem genuinely enchanted by the new vehicle. "A web chat is actually offering [celebrities] a totally different experience. It's on more of an equal basis," says James Cronin at Virgin Net. In a recent Virgin webcast, Brian May stayed on for an hour and a half beyond his allotted time and bravely requested that the final tranche of the webcast be left unmoderated. George Michael, too, overshot his slot. "I really enjoyed myself," he said after the event.

For the celeb and his or her managers, agents and record or film company, the web chat isn't just a PR opportunity, it's a safe house. Though the impression given at a celeb chat is of easy-going banter, questions are generally tightly controlled by online moderators. The celebrity gets one-to-one contact with fans whilst remaining at an impenetrable distance.

For the celebrity, a web chat is a relatively risk-free venture compared with a live TV or radio interview. There are unlikely to be nasty surprises or nutters and he or she gets to be associated with a hip new medium to boot. As Niall MacAnna points out: "George Michael can chat to thousands of his fans online whilst remaining in the privacy of his record company and without intrusive media." In other words, in cyberspace no one can see you cringe.

How long this will last is another matter. Right now, the celebweb chat remains relatively free of the usual constraints of celebrity media events, but it's surely only a matter of time before agents demand syndication deals and serial fees for web chat transcripts. As more ISPs enter the fray, competition for A-list celebs will inevitably become fiercer.

Meantime, the punters themselves remain circumspect. Though attendance in chat rooms for George Michael's web chat may seem high at 9,000, the figures are still small compared with TV. Disappointment travels fast in cyberspace. Confronted by all the pre-publicity, punter expectations are high and there is anecdotal evidence that they are not yet being met. After the George Michael event, participants in one chat room at Michael's record company seemed unimpressed. "Edge" from New York commented: "Given all the software stuff we had to load, it was shit, really. I mean, who knows if it was really George?"

Michael's managers remain positive about the medium. "We're very happy with the George Michael chat. It gives artists a greater lead in portraying their own image," says Bob Stamegna of Aegean. Business isn't bad, either. "We have a marked increase in members of the official online George Michael fan club. Internet sales aren't yet mind-bogglingly good but the event increased both sales and awareness," he adds. "Right now we have to be open minded. The Internet is still very much an add-on."

For the time being, the celebweb chat event remains very much in the teething stage, still dependent on more traditional media for its sustenance. But in a couple of years from now, who knows? It may well be biting the hand that feeds it.