|Miller was hoping for a viral hit for its Milwaukee's Best Light beer cannon, but the video didn't get noticed until the beer maker began buying ads on YouTube.
Marketers continue to create their own content, and more and more they see the web as the distribution enabler in those ambitions. But what might seem like a wide-open, mostly free distribution vehicle is actually an incredibly competitive and fragmented environment.
When a marketer lands a branded-entertainment deal with a major network, its brand is assured of at least on-network promotion of the show, a slot in the programming guides we all use to navigate TV-viewing options and a minimum number of eyeballs (thanks to the natural audience a network might have). Online, a marketer's content, be it episodic or a one-off video it hopes will "go viral," can get lost in the millions of YouTube clips uploaded every day. There is no programming guide; there isn't even a great, widely used, comprehensive video-search program.
One of the first decisions a marketer needs to make is whether to enter a partnership, said Art Sindlinger, VP-activation director at Publicis Groupe media agency Starcom, calling the decision a "trade-off between potential scale and degree of control."
The challenge is that there is no correct answer. While some marketers are pairing with those that have existing scale online, such as YouTube or a portal, others are enlisting a crop of viral-distribution specialists, narrow-casting content to as many as thousands of sites.
"Brands have produced a great viral and turned it loose, but for every one I'd call a hit, there are tons getting very little traction or awareness," Gayle Troberman, senior director-branded entertainment and experiences team at MSN, told Advertising Age recently.
Ms. Troberman was talking to Ad Age about the benefits of working with a major portal to create branded entertainment because the one thing a big, established online player can guarantee is scale.
She went on: "One of the biggest opportunities is this unbelievable interest and belief in doing branded entertainment on the web. The production and distribution costs are less. The challenge is how do you make sure you're building franchises that matter and that you have enough reach and frequency with consumers to break through? ... [Our] model has built-in distribution and we can provide the frequency to reach an audience that's sizable."
She said MSN can also use ads across its many properties, such as Hotmail, to retarget people who may have sampled the content.
Sometimes all that's needed is a little exposure on a site with scale to jump-start an entertaining video. Miller Brewing, for example, created viral videos for its Milwaukee's Best Light brand that showed cans of the beer being shot through a cannon to destroy things such as china and houseplants. Video of the beer cannon launched in early summer 2006 on Miller's website and sat largely unnoticed until August, when the brewer began buying ads on YouTube for the videos. By mid-October it had 3 million hits on the site and 197 blog mentions.
Mr. Sindlinger said he's not sure that tactic would work the same way today, given YouTube's increased size and the increase in videos competing for attention, but he concedes the online market is like so many other industries -- it's all about location. "It's like slotting in a grocery store," he said, "getting your product at eye level to the cooler."
But working with an established player to co-produce and receive instant scale can also limit what a brand is able to do with a program. There might be rules on where it can be syndicated and how the content can be used when another party is involved. The other option is seeding an idea to thousands of smaller sites; scores of viral experts have cropped up to tackle the challenge.
"YouTube is a great site but from an advertising perspective, it's not necessarily," said Jimmy Maymann, chairman of GoViral, a European agency that has run campaigns for marketers such as Nissan and Goodyear. "It's the broadcaster of the online world, so it's got critical mass but [it's] not contextual or segmented."
Unilever tapped one of those buzz-building agencies, M80, to help with the viral distribution of a branded-entertainment deal for Degree -- that partnership was first detailed by Madison & Vine in mid-January. The endeavor hitched the deodorant brand to a series of "24"-branded webisodes. The idea was that by seeding the webisodes in hundreds of "24" fan sites, the brand would capitalize on some early word-of-mouth marketing and get the show's superfans talking.
"Getting distribution isnt the hard part. In fact, I'd say that the internet has allowed brands -- and even the everyday consumer -- to have access to distribution like no other time in history. The internet has leveled the playing field for both creating content and distributing it," Babs Rangaiah, Unilever USA's director-media and entertainment, said in an e-mail. "But at the end of the day, just as with anything, the content has to be great. If we get trial and the content isn't good it's over. If some come and it's great, it will explode. And it's that combination of marketing and great content that generates PR and ultimately scale."
Jeff Stern, co-founder of The Daily Reel, which recently raised a seed round of venture capital from Boston-based Prism VentureWorks, thinks using recommendations and word-of-mouth as a distribution tactic is a smart move. He has tried to create a more systematic way for people to find good online content. But, he said, entertainment content is largely classified as good because other people think it's good -- and that's when it becomes a hit.
"In the online world it's even more dependent on that word-of-mouth [than in the offline world]," he said. "On the web you can share the good and the bad. All of this stuff right now is powered by recommendations."
So it goes without saying that no matter how good the media and distribution plans for online branded entertainment, if the creative doesn't pass muster it'll go nowhere. For Degree and "24," MindShare Entertainment and production house Science & Fiction enlisted a "24" director, camera operators and an editor from the show. It also got all the assets from Fox, including the show's signature countdown clock and the sound design.
"It looked and felt like the show, therefore the viewers thought it was cool," said David Lang, senior partner-director of programming for MindShare Entertainment. He acknowledges that tapping into an existing popular entertainment property in the first place was the initial step toward finding scale for the branded-entertainment program.
So how can a brand predict what kind of a hit one of its online branded-entertainment ventures will be? It can't. But for marketers looking for online branded entertainment, the key is that it's in many cases cheaper and less of a gamble than even a TV commercial. Said Mr. Stern: "It's a crapshoot but it's a crapshoot at the quarter table as opposed to the $500 one."