Cool Site: Ms. Dewey

Nothing works on the Web like a beautiful woman with an attitude telling you something silly or stupid or just plain funny before offering you some Web links to get your information search going. Ms. Dewey, the sexy librarian with a brilliantly toothsome smile, offers Web searchers a display of manners by turns goofy, impish, outlandish, coy, and charming. The Ms. Dewey campaign, with her own URL that gives her an uncertain pedigree, helped drive media attention and traffic to MSN while giving it cache among bored Web searchers looking for an attractive soul mate to instruct them on their query journey.

Ms. Dewey

Ms. Dewey premiered on the Web on October 6, 2006, but her story started more than a year before when a marketing group at Microsoft responsible for driving buzz was assigned the task of creating some kind of online avatar to attract users to MSN.

The group had come off a successful Windows Live Messenger campaign featuring video scenes and an interactive online adventure related to the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Sean Carver, then group marketing manager for Windows Live, concedes the Pirates campaign was a lot easier than trying to drum up interest in “algorithmic searches.” Carver also did he see the MSN audience as particularly open to a traditional online marketing campaign—even a clever one.

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There’s an increasingly prominent consumer who is immune to traditional marketing. They never open an advertising e-mail, they turn off the pop-up ads, they’re not going to click on banner ads, and they’re not going to register online for anything.

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Sean Carver, Group Marketing Manager, Windows Live

This same group of marketing cynics may have tried live search and not liked it. Getting them to like anything with a patina of marketing would be challenging, he figured, if not daunting. The concept of avatars began to look attractive, because Microsoft had a history of using them and they have made a comeback: Sun Microsystems even had a press conference in Second Life featuring journalistic avatars last year.

Carver wanted to get users to MSN for search without them having any sense they were being marketed to. With video streaming coming into its own, his team assumed they could create an avatar with full-motion video and several hundred canned responses to typical and atypical searches. “You can now serve up video much faster for a richer experience,” he points out.

Ms. Dewey was born. The team had debated whether to have the avatar change with different searches: Abraham Lincoln could do one search, an avatar for another famous person might do the next one. They scrapped the idea instead for one fictional icon—Ms. Dewey—who would pay homage to the Dewey Decimal System.

The team arrived at an Web site called MsDewey.com featuring Janina Gavankar, an actress best known for playing Papi on Showtime’s The L Word. McCann-Erickson’s graphic designers and the developer EVB created the site.

Gavankar spent three days on a set. Her gig involves taking props from behind her desk, making random comments, and calling users back to the site when they haven’t used it for a few minutes but left it up in their browsers. All told, she has around 600 video responses to queries. Some relate to the query; others seem intentionally obscure, often bizarrely funny.

The backdrop of the set features highways and skyscrapers and changes from day to night, depending on where a visitor to the site lives. The search results show up, shaded, on the right-hand side of the screen. It’s a pretty package.