The architects behind the current spate of online hits -- Live 8, March Madness on Demand and Howard Stern's post-Infinity parade through Manhattan -- say the recipe for success on the Web comes down to two key points: putting consumers in control, and giving them something they can't get in mainstream media.
World Cup as potential juggernaut
Events with Web potential this summer are the U.S. Open and Wimbledon tennis tournaments and golf's PGA Championships. But perhaps the biggest opportunity is the World Cup, for which ESPN has snared English-language broadcast rights. Consider: The tournament comes along only once every four years; the U.S. is fielding its best team ever; the games are played in Germany, so most of the competitions occur in the middle of the workday; and there are 64 teams, which means not every game can be broadcast on TV.
ESPN, however, has opted to limit live streaming to its 360 broadband product, available to only about 8 million consumers. Instead of going for eyeballs and ad dollars, ESPN is hoping the event will drive 360 subscriptions.
"I always find it strategic to put quality programming on a platform that we're trying to grow because consumer demand drives distribution," said John Skipper, ESPN's exec VP-content.
Predicting demand difficult
But predicting consumer demand is tricky. At CBS Sportsline, the audience for March Madness on Demand outstripped initial estimates, moving the company to up the number of simultaneous streams it allowed from 260,000 to 268,000.
"I would be lying if I told you we knew going into it that it would blow up to the size it was," said Jim Bankoff, AOL's programming chief of Live 8, which drew 5 million unique users to the site the day it aired, according to the company's internal numbers, and recorded 175,000 simultaneous streams, a record at the time. "But we gave the consumer control and they rewarded us for it." MTV, whose linear Live 8 coverage was panned, adopted a similar consumer-in-control recipe for the online version of its Video Music Awards, which aired two months after Live 8. The My VMAs received more than 11 million streams in the month that followed.
Most of the online megahits have filled a gap largely neglected by traditional media -- think Howard Stern's parade -- or given viewers access to video when they couldn't be near a TV, as was the case with the early rounds of March Madness on Demand. CBS Sportsline adopted a similar strategy broadcasting the three-hole Amen Corner Live from the Masters. The first two weekdays generated 1.2 million streams with an average of 52 minutes a visit. In addition, "the Masters organization is very conservative in the number of hours they broadcast on TV, so this allowed us to show more live coverage online that also happened to be exclusive," said Joe Ferreira, VP-programming, CBS Sportsline.
Online hits still important
But does a hit on the Web still mean something? It does for the major online media companies. It's hard to underestimate what Live 8 did for sleepy AOL or discount the 3 million registrations March Madness on Demand drove for CBS Sportsline.
"It's important we show off the capabilities of what the Web can do and what Yahoo can uniquely do because of the Web and our audience, capabilities, brand and distribution," said Dan Rosensweig, chief operating officer at Yahoo. "There were 10,000 communities formed in just a few hours around the Howard Stern event."
And for agencies and marketers that make a business out of betting on hits and avoiding bombs, it can be a huge coup. "There's a first-mover advantage in that people look to you as a leader," said Michael Turcotte, media supervisor at Beyond Interactive, a MediaCom company. "And you shut out your competitors from those opportunities."