Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Branded Entertainment Comes of Age

Branded Entertainment Comes of Age
November 29, 2005

Has the internet become a viable option for branded entertainment? Savvy marketers are taking chances and jump-starting the learning curve.

The significant changes in television viewing behavior over the past couple of years have put brand marketers in a difficult spot. They want the emotion that television allows, but reach is diminishing. And with TiVo-ers skipping ads (between 66 percent and 90 percent of DVR owners skip commercials, depending upon which study you read), they are looking elsewhere.

Anyone who has tasted the interactivity and measurability of the internet has found religion. But let’s face it. To date, the internet has not been a vehicle for mass consumption of entertainment and has thus provided a challenge for many brand marketers.

That’s beginning to change.

With broadband beating out dial-up and with the internet taking a regular spot in the daily behavior of consumers, brand marketers are starting to reconsider the value of the medium for awareness and engagement with their brands. And they are not alone. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper or the trades and not see a story about a ‘soon to be launched’ or ‘just launched’ television channel on the internet. 

The traditional networks, along with ESPN, Scripps, MTV, Comedy Central and others have either launched or are planning to launch channels that will deliver on-demand video content to the web. Most of the early efforts have been focused on repurposing existing made-for-TV content. Realizing, however, that this is of limited value to consumers, the big players are developing internet-only offerings.

After 25 years, interactive TV has finally arrived and it’s not on TV, it’s on the internet. With entertainment giants as well as niche players (some of whom are teenagers creating shows in their backyards) in the game, there’s bound to be some buzz-worthy entertainment created. Although the internet as an entertainment vehicle is in its infancy, brand marketers who are willing to take chances will be the first to reap the benefits. 

Many marketers clearly agree and have decided to create their own entertainment content as a vehicle for building their brands. And if you consider advertising in the 20th century, you realize that this is not the first time. P&G produced and sponsored the first radio soap operas in the 1930s. And when TV took over, P&G produced and sponsored the majority of the soap operas -- that’s right they don’t call them “soaps” for nothing!

Several of our brand marketing clients are taking a giant leap forward and creating their own network -- a place where they can provide the consumer with a variety of content from scripted dramas, to gaming, to user-generated content. This is, of course, a substantial investment -- only the biggest or most risk-averse marketers will be willing to make that bet. 

However, another group of marketers has decided to create original content made for the web in a serial format, commonly referred to as webisodes. Webisodes are the new flavor of the day (okay, flavor of the quarter perhaps). Are they here to stay? My guess is that they’ll likely be around only until better content comes along (but I’m sure people said that about soaps). Regardless, the fact is that right now there is a dearth of rich, immersive, entertaining content out there. Because of that, it’s a great time to experiment with entertainment on the internet as a brand-building vehicle. As a marketer, it will help you learn how to most effectively use the medium and, if done well, you will get great results. Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln Mercury has done just that with its “Meet the Lucky Ones”. According to Mercury, the five-week series of original short films has resulted in sales of 500 SUVs, and traffic on the site has gone from several hundred thousand to several million.

If I’m a brand marketer considering how to spend my budget in 2006, the fact that “there’s not a lot great entertainment content on the internet” is not reason enough to create my own. Here are a few more reasons. It’s early enough that you can make some mistakes and not do much damage. It’s early enough that if you do it right, word will spread quickly and reach a hungry (and large) audience. It’s early enough that you can be seen as a brand that ‘gets it.’ It’s early enough that you can define your own path. Lastly, you can do all of this for a relatively low cost. In fact, you can test the waters with the cost of producing one or so TV spots -- or less if you create a highly user-driven program.

There is no roadmap. You are a pioneer. But here are six rules of the road:

#6 Get Focused. Obvious, I know, but I have to include it. You need to be very focused on a target audience. Even if that target demographic radiates out, it is critical to establish the sweet spot. If not, you risk, as one of my colleagues likes to say, “…serving up some very weak tea.”

#5 Be wary of product as hero. The brand must be the hero, absolutely. But if you make the product the hero it may feel like a long TV commercial, and that defeats the purpose of this venture. If your customers are full of passion for your brand, (e.g. when a new store opens, they’d be willing to camp out for seven nights to be the first one in the door), then you might be the exception.

#4 Think distributed. One of the most popular features on Myspace.com is the ability for members to post music videos from the Music section to their profile pages. Think about how you can create small, portable bits of entertainment consumers (mainly teens) can pull back to their own sites. Let your audience help disseminate your brand message -- it’s the ultimate compliment.

#3 Your competition includes a comfy sofa, hot food and cold beverages. As much as we internet folk like to say that TV is dead, we all know that it’s not anywhere near dead, just changing quickly. There will always be a place for passive entertainment and active relaxation. Respect that and do something different than posting made-for-TV content online.

#2 Users rule (see #1). Give ownership to the audience. Provide them with the building blocks to become involved in the experience and then see where they take it. Ultimately, the path to success will be built by your users. If not, they may become your biggest competitors!

#1 This is not a broadcast event. Start with the premise that this should be incredibly interactive. This is your chance to create a whole new kind of entertainment. Consider how the consumer will want to interact with this. 

Pete Stein is vice president, clients services of Avenue A | Razorfish, the largest interactive marketing and technology services firm.

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