Call it the Old Spice effect. A year after "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" garnered more than 100 million views on the web with clever, personalized responses to fans, brands are asking -- and in some cases demanding -- that agencies hit certain levels of "earned media" as part of their online ad campaigns.
This, of course, has been the ambition of marketers since the first so-called "viral" video blew up on YouTube years ago, but as agencies now get more clever about "seeding" video online ads, social tools and PR, marketers are coming to expect to be able to earn a significant portion of their overall impressions, both bringing down the overall cost and increasing effectiveness.
"A year ago, people were coming to us and saying, 'We need guaranteed views, period,'" said Dan Greenberg, CEO of video distribution firm Sharethrough. "What's shifted now is we're seeing requests that are purely for social video, which means content distribution as opposed to traditional ad placements." One problem: While a great video is almost guaranteed to be shared, and some agencies have become very good at the science of seeding videos on the web, pass-along is still a dice-roll.
"We're not really sure what's going to take, what the pass-along will be," said Michael Hayes, president of digital for Initiative , which handles media for Kia. Kia has had several video hits, including its Soul Hamsters and a video of the L.A. Clippers' Blake Griffin vaulting over the hood of a Kia Optima and dunking a basketball.
Creating and disseminating online video, from 30-second TV spots to long, branded mini-movies, has become a bigger part of marketers' online strategies. Ad Age 's Viral Video Chart chronicles the top campaigns each week. Two years ago, a couple hundred thousand views a week was enough to make the top 10; this year, it takes at least a half-million to make the chart, and several million to top it.
Rather than straight impressions, marketers are asking for new metrics, including social shares, or how often the ad was passed along on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or other social sites. To the marketer, each "share" represents two things: a lower overall cost to reach 1,000 people and greater engagement conferred by pass-along to friends and peers. "There is a perception that if a consumer is seeking out a piece of content there is incremental value on that rather than just a forced impression," said Chris Allen, director of video innovation at Starcom USA.
Agencies and marketers have another reason to attempt to make "viral" videos: Premium ad inventory, such as TV on Hulu or professional content on YouTube, is more often than not sold out or so expensive that it's no longer economic for advertisers.
"If we can do this, the economics are compelling," said Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategy officer at Vivaki, a media unit of Publicis. "If we can get more exposure, it reduces the effective CPM for paid media that people buy online."
The move can also serve as a global focus group for which videos will work best on TV. Take Kia: the video of Blake Griffin dunking over a car was uploaded by hundreds of fans. The popularity of the clip signaled to creative agency David & Goliath to use the same video to create a TV ad which aired nationally.
That said, agencies are reluctant to make "earned" media part of the guarantee for video views, Facebook "likes" or other forms of consumer behavior. More likely, any impressions earned are presented as a bonus on top of the paid distribution for a video, even for videos that seem obvious candidates to go viral.
"If you want something guaranteed to go 'viral,' drink the water in Nigeria," said Rob Norman, CEO of Group M North America. "What we can do is devise tactics that make their social thing -- whatever it is -- as efficiently discoverable as it can be."
From the early days, agencies figured out that great content was not enough to make a video spread on its own. Paid placements either as promoted videos on YouTube and other video sites or within display ad units were almost always required to get a video sampled enough to give it any chance of taking off, and could even amplify the organic sharing itself.
A new generation of video-seeding firms that launched to provide technology, seeding expertise or analytics such as TubeMogul, Sharethrough and Visible Measures (which provides data to Advertising Age) have all added variations of ad networks to their services. Tubemogul launched a demand-side platform for video; Sharethrough a network video as content; and Visible Measures launched a spinoff network Viewable Media for user-initiated viewing.
"The traditional model was, 'he who had the most money bought the most air time and could get in front of the most consumers,'" said Brian Shin, CEO of Visible Measures. "Now, consumers are doing the distributing -- it's a realization that consumers are driving everything."
The new onus on earned media or social sharing has placed new pressures on creative agencies to produce creative that consumers would choose to watch. "This is the first time where creative directors themselves feel like their personal necks are on the line as far as distribution," Mr. Greenberg said.
"Earned media has fundamentally affected how we view our media mix," said Josh Brandau, director of distribution strategy at Periera & O' Dell. "When we go in and talk to [clients] we tell them what we can make possible guaranteed and then what we think we can get from earned."
Of the hundreds of millions of views for online movie trailers for "Halo" or "Harry Potter", for example, 75% were earned (read: free). "For the price you would spend on a broadcast commercial, you get success that is untouchable on TV," Mr. Brandau said.
Yet, just because the impressions aren't from traditional advertising, doesn't mean they're free. Much of the actual dollars spent on this kind of marketing go to the creative and the manpower required to do the social-media legwork, and don't end up as media spending anyway.
"You are not paying a publisher to do that ," Mr. Hayes said. "You are paying in terms of labor, to the agency in most cases."