Each year, young girls fan out,  turning to friends and neighbors — as well as their parents' coworkers — to sell Girl Scout cookies.

The treats have been something of an institution in the United States for more than 80 years. The ad campaigns have been updated over the years, but perhaps the biggest change is happening in 2010. This year, girls are taking their pitches for the $700 million a year business online.

This year, the Girl Scouts are taking their $700-m
This year, the Girl Scouts are taking their $700-million a year cookie business online.

Enabling cookies

Four girls from Troop 30313 cluster around a laptop in troop leader Monique Lazzarini's kitchen. The San Francisco scouts are learning how to market their cookies with eVites, text messages and on Facebook.

They're taking advantage of the fact that, for the first time, the Girl Scouts organization is embracing online cookie marketing.

Eleven-year-old Emily Costanza says she's enjoying the chance to learn about social media. "I feel that everyone should be using this resource," she says. "It's very helpful and it's a very [good] experience for younger children because when they're older they'll know how to use it, and it's a way to have fun with technology."

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That makes Laurel Richie, chief marketing officer for the Girl Scouts of the USA, happy. "I love the fact that we're moving from door-to-door to online because it says that we're really in touch with girls today," she says.

Leadership for the 21st century

The century-old girls' organization promotes cooperation and leadership. Richie says, whether the girls are selling cookies in person or marketing them online, the important thing is they're coming up with plans and executing them.

"We've been hearing all kinds of things," she says. "I almost can't think of a media outreach vehicle that isn't being used. We have 2.6 million Girl Scouts across the country; there are probably 2.6 million different little marketing plans for the cookie program."

Wild A. Freeborn sparked controversy last year aft
Wild A. Freeborn sparked controversy last year after making a video appeal for people to buy cookies from her to help send her troop to summer camp.

This official enthusiasm for digital marketing wasn't apparent last year when a young Girl Scout in North Carolina posted a simple video on YouTube to pitch her cookies. The organization called the video a violation of its rules, and the scuffle over the 8-year-old's viral effort became a national story.

Richie says the girl's safety was the main concern. "So we just took a moment to breathe and to make sure we could find a way to meet their desire to market online with our desire to make sure they do it in a way that is safe."

Staying safe online

The organization worked with Microsoft to develop a safety program for their scouts.

Ten-year-old scout Natalie Guitierrez ticks off some of the points. "Don't show your picture, don't tell your last name, you don't want anyone to come find you, which is really bad. Don't tell them your phone number." She knows that people are not necessarily what they seem online. "If they say, like, 'It's safe, I'm OK, I'm a doctor or something,' they might be lying."

Enabling Cookies: Girl Scouts Take Sales Online
Enabling Cookies: Girl Scouts Take Sales Online

Laurel Richie says a new Girl Scout pledge to be careful on line incorporates those ideas, and is just as important as teaching girls the technologies themselves.

The kids are doing their work online supervised by troop leaders and sometimes, parents. Parents who are getting busier by the day welcome technological help for cookie sales.

Marina Park, who heads the Girl Scouts program in Northern California, says it's been hard to find parents with the time to volunteer with the group, let alone do cookie sales door-to-door. "If the parents are working, you really don't want [to be] walking your kids after dark when there's homework to be done and dinner to be made," she says. "It really simplifies the whole thing."

Money raised from cookie sales helps support Girl
Money raised from cookie sales helps support Girl Scout outings like this visit to the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site in Texas.

Sweet success

The new marketing technique seems to be having an effect on sales. At the group's national office, Laurel Richie says she's been hearing that this has been an impressive selling season around the country. Troop leader Lazzarini says her girls have sold two to three times as many boxes as they had by this time last year.

Marina Park says advanced sales have gone up 9% across Northern California. "That's a significant change, particularly because by and large, cookie sales have been flat to declining nationwide for some time, and so to see a big uptick like that is pretty significant."

And pretty important, too. The money raised from cookie sales helps train troop leaders, improve camp sites and offer financial assistance to make Girl Scouts activities available to all girls who are interested.

But if for some reason the online sales don't work out, there's always the old tried and true approach — selling in person.