When a Web site that is a long-time favorite among the online community changes its business model, backlash will inevitably follow.
This was the challenge facing BitTorrent when the popular site launched its online retail store, even though it was known as a piracy site.
The other PR task facing the site was convincing the entertainment industry that BitTorrent had changed its technology and was poised to become a reputable retailer.
Amid these changes, the company wanted a branding strategy that was savvy enough to reposition the site, while still holding onto its core users.
The strategy was a two-pronged approach that included outreach to the entertainment industry and to its existing user base. As BitTorrent prepared for the relaunch, criticism from its user community intensified, says Lily Lin, director of communications at BitTorrent.
Though faced with accusations of selling out, the company forged ahead with its plans to become a retailer on par with rivals like Apple and Zune. Yet when BitTorrent met with entertainment content providers, many were skeptical that the site would be able alter its technology to charge for content.
"It was all about changing the image of BitTorrent," Lin says. "BitTorrent was synonymous with Internet privacy; people thought we were the bad guys."
The site spent much of 2006 simply managing inbound calls, so the company hired Atomic PR in early 2007 to help devise a more proactive PR plan. BitTorrent's founders started reaching out to bloggers to show loyalty to its early fans, even as its product was evolving. They realized the drawback of having to pay for content, but stressed that the purchasing model is a business reality.
The team pre-briefed about 20 titles prior to the launch, explaining BitTorrent's new technology and its plans to only allow licensed content on its site, she notes.
"The goals were to create a sense of safety - while retaining edge - for the entertainment industry and to signal the loyal BitTorrent user base that we [wouldn't] disrupt anything," says James Hannon, Atomic cofounder and EVP.
The company garnered 400-plus press articles, including syndicated hits from the AP
and Reuters. About half of its coverage was the result of blogger outreach.
Most bloggers reacted with "BitTorrent goes legit" stories, referring to the company as the former class bully turned into the teacher's pet, Lin notes.
"So, it was much more about BitTorrent evolving as a company and offering a legal alternative to that of piracy versus us being complete sellouts," she adds.
The campaign successfully helped the company change its image from being known as a piracy site to a viable online retailer, Lin says. BitTorrent also set the foundation to continue evolving its product into new market spaces, she added.
BitTorrent continues to work with Atomic and is preparing to launch its enterprise product. It is leveraging the credibility gained from this campaign to convince companies to integrate its technology into theirs, Lin says.
"Now, it's 'how do we instill that perception of security, viability, and sustainability to make [CIOs] feel comfortable with integrating the BitTorrent technology into their infrastructure?'" she adds.
PR team: Atomic PR and BitTorrent
Campaign: BitTorrent retail launch
Duration: January to February 2007
Budget: About $50,000
While altering its business model was necessary, it was risky and challenged BitTorrent's hip perception among the influential online community. Yet by being mindful of its user base - and the rising acceptance of pay-for-content models - it seems to have minimized reputation damage.
Though online users can adapt to new-business models, it's hard to win them back once their attention has turned to a new site. As BitTorrent enters the enterprise market, it must avoid losing its core audience to sites perceived to be more online-sphere focused.