Over the past five years, I’ve heard no less than five different labels used to describe the creation of brand-funded original web programming. I’ve also been guilty of using them all -- from “branded content” to “branded entertainment” to “original programming” to “web originals” to yes, such terms as “infotainment”, “edutainment”, “utilitainment” or the latest to find its way into the ever-expanding vocabulary, the “social film”. It’s simple enough to guess what each of these labels proposes to deliver; the hard part is finding which ones matter to you and which ones deserve your attention.
When will the “I Love Lucy” moment occur? When will a significant audience fall in love with a web series as it once fell for television? It’s an apt description, as that series smartly leveraged technology and audience interaction to break through the clutter. It was television’s first scripted television program shot on 35 mm film in front of a live studio audience, vividly transporting Lucy and Ricky through the screen and into our homes.
The web provides a similar transcendent opportunity, as never before has there been a medium in which an audience can invest and immerse themselves so fully into the content. Beyond real time commenting and social sharing, consumers are increasingly provided the opportunity to become part of the show’s creative arc. The breakthrough then is as much about the technology and opportunity as it is the actual show, whose existence is merely a matter of time.
Over the years there have been several notable and successful web video experiments – Burger King’s Subservient Chicken campaign and Seth Green’s ControlTV (disclosure: this was a series co-produced by DBG) come to mind. These were programs engineered specifically around the medium and would not have been possible on television. As the technology improves, the acting and directorial talent involved grows stronger, and the continued shift of viewing consumption from TV to web moves forward, the next crop of interactive, crowd-sourced programming is something to be excited about.
A superb example of this is the The Beauty Inside, the self-proclaimed “social film” sponsored by Intel and Toshiba. Directed by Drake Doremus and featuring Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, this is a shining example of the form, the investment for the audience succinctly delivered on the show’s homepage: “The Beauty Inside” is an ongoing film where the audience can play the main part. Watch the video, then like it to hear about the next episodes or audition to play Alex yourself on our Facebook page.”
These examples provoke compelling questions: Would you watch this? Would you pass time in front of your computer telling a giant chicken to break dance or pee on the couch and then watch it happen? Would you like to be in an original, groundbreaking film directed by Drake Doremus? Some of you would say no, but there is little doubt that there is a massive audience out there that that is waiting for the opportunity to do so.
From the time that I became cognizant of physical product placement in TV and film (I’m thinking early teens, but no doubt media wizards would say that this black magic was working on me long before that), I always found it more interesting than annoying. I would admire how sleekly the advertising was embedded into the creative and wonder how much they might have paid for it. At its best, my affinity for the brand would coincide with my affinity for the programming and I might be that much more likely to spend my hard-earned money on it.
In the first episode of The Beauty Inside, not until the 2:51 mark (of a 6:39 episode) does a laptop enter the scene organically as part of the action. Had I not been focused on finding the brand integration, there exists the possibility that I would have missed it, but much more likely is that it would have made an impact without interrupting my engrossment within the content.
And while there is no magic formula for success, here are some key ingredients that I have found critical to the mix:
Establish a single branded content liaison throughout the process. On any given production, there are multiple parties involved in the process and the chain of command is never the same. Whether the production is driven by the production shop, the brand itself, the brand’s media agency, the brand’s creative agency, or even the talent agency, it is critical to establish a single communication lead throughout the process. As much as possible, this needs to be an apolitical process. Egos must be set aside for the greater good of the project. I have seen some great ones fall into dead silence as a result of too many voices chiming in from too many places. At the end of the day, either the production shop, the BE team or the creative agency should be leading the production process and that leadership role needs to be established at the onset.
Don’t lose sight of visual impact. Where tight production turnarounds are common and client expectations are tied to KPIs, there is often a furious hustle to bang out the production and forget about the big picture. And by “picture”, I mean picture; the moving images that end up on screens. Naturally, some pieces of content are intrinsically more eye-opening (big name talent, explosions, waterskiing squirrels) than others (how-to content, cooking, financial advice) but there is no reason for any original programming to shortchange visual impact and appeal. The first few shots, followed by the graphical elements, should immediately hook a viewer in. That is one way to ensure that in an ever-crowded content marketplace, you are at least giving your programming a head start.
Tidy up your real estate. Consider the tune-in vehicles that are available, whether that is distributing banners and/or pre-roll spots. Sure, there are some dynamic video players out there masquerading as banners that essentially deliver a self-contained micro-site. However, this inventory may be best served to raise awareness and elicit a specific action, such as clicking through to the show’s landing page and/or clicking on the Facebook like button As our CEO Chris Young likes to say, “Today’s empowered consumers can turn you on and turn you off in a second.” True enough, but today’s empowered consumer also can and will appreciate when an advertisement is well executed.
Case in point, a recent ad campaign from rich media provider Innovid brilliantly captured this by tapping into our mysterious fascination with cats. The banner provided little more than a giant close-up of a strangely intoxicating cat face. Hell, I’m not even a cat person, but I could not pull myself away, and all it took to cut through the clutter was to have this cat challenge me to a stare down, clearly resulting in a victory for Innovid and the cat.
Another bright spot is the fairly recently coined “native advertising” that a company such as ShareThrough espouses, where the ads are unique and native to the experience of the particular site in which they are featured. My suggestion here is to optimize against as many forms of native advertising as possible, and then make sure that the mass reach vehicles are visually engineered to drive awareness, tune-in, or whatever call-to-action that all invested have agreed upon. It needn’t incur any significant budget; it only needs some attention to detail and a reversion back to the core of display advertising, which still works, whether that’s the cat or the cows painting “Eat Mor Chikin” on billboards on the side of the road when I’m speeding by.
Have a little patience. To ask for “a lot” of patience in our hyperactive industry is asking for too much, but I do hope that we can find the time to properly evaluate our projects before tossing them aside in our search for the next big thing. The footage gets shot, the Facebook page lights up, some press mentions occur, maybe even an award or two come along, and then, far too often, that’s the end of the story. The web need not be the place where good ideas (or failed TV ideas) come to die, but if we do not recognize our successes, than we perpetuate this cycle. Realistic expectations, tied to KPIs, should be established at the very beginning, and hopefully that KPI is not simply to check the Branded Entertainment box and see what happens.
Let’s not forget that only a few short years ago it was enough to create a stellar piece of content, throw it out across a video network, and hope for the best. We know better now that in order for these projects to compete for our attention, there needs to be a thorough game-plan that leaves little to chance. Several recent trends demonstrate that this is happening, and if we (producers, media/social media experts, publishers, research) can all put our heads together (when they stop spinning) long enough to execute on said plan, than we have plenty to look forward too …. perhaps even the elusive “Lucy” moment!