Holiday Inn's 'Smart Show' Wises Up

Branded Web Series Puts Lessons From First Season to Use

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Holiday Inn Express and its digital agency, Publicis' Digitas, have learned some valuable lessons on branded entertainment.
The second season of 'The Smart Show' is taking a more subject-matter focus and is less episodic, hoping to increase engagement over time by leading with topics of interest to business travelers.
The second season of 'The Smart Show' is taking a more subject-matter focus and is less episodic, hoping to increase engagement over time by leading with topics of interest to business travelers.

The just-launched second season of "The Smart Show," a branded web series the marketer and agency launched last year and co-produced with Endemol USA, comes equipped with a few major changes from its first season.

Jolted, but not derailed
For starters, the "Dirty Jobs"-esque traveling roadshow has a new distribution partner in the form of blip.tv, an online video site that is decidedly more niche than the show's first-season distributors, Time Warner's AOL and HBO. Not only did distribution hit a snag when HBO's comedy site, This Just In, folded halfway through the first season's run, the show's creators also found it hard for their sponsored content to get noticed among AOL's broad audience.

There was also the matter of the breakneck production schedule for season one of "Smart Show," with many episodes shot, edited and uploaded within the same day. Ben Jones, Digitas' senior VP-creative, recalls the process as being "sort of a nuclear approval. Either it was approved, or there was no show that day." Still, with all the various parties on board -- Digitas, Holiday Inn Express, AOL and their respective legal teams -- getting a common structure approved to go live every day was "pretty amazing," Mr. Jones added.

This time around, Holiday Inn Express is taking an approach that's more subject-matter focused and less episodic, John Merkin, Holiday Inn brands' senior VP-brand management, said in an e-mail interview. "This change is based on the insight that business travelers come at the content from their areas of interest, and we felt we could increase engagement over time by leading with topics of interest rather than trying to build a roadshow audience on a schedule."

The 40 new episodes of "Smart Show" will appear twice a week on blip.tv, and will air through October. They will also appear on hiexpress.com/thesmartshow.

Streamlined interaction
There's also less emphasis on the show's social-networking and user-generated components, which encouraged users last year to contribute their own content to the brand's microsite. Said Mr. Merkin, "Our target guests of frequent business travelers tend to read and watch segments, vote and possibly comment -- but they do not have the time for more intensive activities like creating and loading videos. So the new show site has more ways to interact simply and easily."

The web series' initial failures with both a major-portal-distribution model and attempts at large-scale social networking may come as a discouraging sign for marketers hoping to attain the holy grail of engagement through branded entertainment, but it's also a realistic lesson learned about its target audience.

MindShare Entertainment's "In the Motherhood" is one of few, if not the only, branded-entertainment projects to find success with both models. A web series co-produced by Sprint and Unilever's Suave, the show found a loyal and active audience through a partnership with MSN that yielded 5.5 million video views in its first season and a strong fan base via a production process that relied on users to submit their own stories for consideration as plot points for each episode. But "In the Motherhood" was made for multitasking moms, who likely caught up with the show while at work or at home when they weren't otherwise engaged with mommy duties. "The Smart Show," which is geared toward on-the-go travelers, found its target audience a bit more elusive.

"If people saw the show, they really liked it and really responded to the brand. There was a huge jump in stay intent and brand-perception metrics," Mr. Jones said. "The only issue was we didn't get the kind of scale we wanted; not enough people saw the show."

Eyes on the goal
Mr. Merkin added that 76% of the first season's viewers indicated they would be more likely to stay at a Holiday Inn Express based on the show. "As we move forward with season two, we look to increase the number of visitors to the site, the length of time they are engaged and their overall intent to stay with Holiday Inn Express," he said.

The "Smart Show" lessons have also not deterred Digitas from launching its new branded-content unit, The Third Act, which is currently in active conversations with clients looking to go beyond the sponsorship model for web-based video content. Said Mr. Jones, "We've started to go out to media properties and say, 'Of course the terrified ad sales guy says you'd still pay us money, right?' If we're still spending money on production and content, we want to see what kind of integration we can have with the site experience."
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