The result: A block of branded entertainment -- for which Microsoft paid no integration fee -- that spoke to the gaming community's early adopters and helped create a Super Bowl-like on-air event around the new console. The programming will have a second life starting next week when G4 makes it available through the end of the year on free video-on-demand.
|Microsoft's Xbox 360 product launch, which included a series of events across multiple locations in the U.S., was covered with nearly 4 hours of live G4 channel programming.
They were preaching to the converted, but that's exactly who Microsoft wanted to target for the launch of Xbox 360, the tech giant's newest video game system and its biggest challenge yet to Sony's dominating PlayStation business.
Microsoft partnered with the gaming-centric G4 cable network for a live on-air event intended to showcase every aspect of Xbox 360 on the eve of its debut into the U.S. market. The marketer collaborated with G4 on 3.6 hours of programming that originated from four spots around the country, including Microsoft's headquarters near Seattle, a celebrity party in the Hollywood Hills, New York City and a gamer fest in the Mojave Desert. The show contained everything from interviews with Microsoft developers who created Xbox 360 to coverage of the long lines of fans waiting outside stores to buy the first consoles.
"A cornerstone of our launch was to speak directly to gamers," said Chris DiCesare, director-product marketing at Microsoft Game Studios. "And what we liked about this deal specifically was that it could reach and engage our audience rather than try to force feed them a marketing message."
Like other marketers, Microsoft is faced with a fragmented media environment in which young consumers, particularly men, are more difficult to reach through traditional means. Branded entertainment, Mr. DiCesare said, has become more appealing as a way to target the core videogamer.
Microsoft executives knew they would garner a significant amount of pre-release buzz across technology and consumer press for the Xbox 360. The deal with G4 was especially important because the marketer is counting on the enthusiast network to jump-start sales. The company expects to sell as many as 3 million Xbox 360s worldwide in about 90 days, with a later push to more casual gamers and entertainment fans.
Xbox 360 has drawn rave reviews for its advanced features but criticism for its $400 price tag for the full bells-and-whistles version. The console, billed as the new centerpiece of a family's entertainment system, plays CDs and DVDs and can be connected to the Internet, digital cameras, portable MP3 players and personal computers.
G4, which has worked with Microsoft on previous on-air stunts and promotions for the launch of Xbox Live and the mega-hit game "Halo 2," approached the longtime advertiser with ideas about how to integrate Xbox 360 into a night of programming. G4 executives created Xbox 360-themed versions of its most popular shows like "Icons," "Cheat" and "X Play." In between, the network aired documentary-style segments on 360's backstory, reviews of the console's features and exclusive looks at new games. Coverage of a Hollywood party showed such celebrities as Snoop Dogg, Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie, actor Wilmer Valderrama and Carmen Electra playing games and swilling cocktails at a hilltop mansion.
The programming was wrapped in "Countdown to 360" graphics, mirroring the neon green and white colors of the game console, with an on-air clock that ticked down the time until the system went on sale.
Part of the coverage originated in the Mojave Desert at a 400,000-square-foot airplane-hangar event dubbed Zero Hour, which a G4 host described as "an orgy of gaming." Other parts of the show were shot outside Best Buy stores where thousands of fans were waiting to buy their consoles. All the segments were hosted by G4 talent well known to the channel's viewers.
"The point was really to take a 360 view of the 360," said Lauren de la Fuente, G4's VP strategic planning and business development. "We wanted it to be like the Super Bowl for the gamer audience."
Microsoft and Best Buy, already advertisers on G4, stepped up their media commitment around the Xbox 360 debut. They did not pay integration fees for the "Countdown" programming.
Though G4 doesn't release ratings, executives said the program was among the most-watched in its history, building throughout the 3.6 hours to a peak when the first 360 was sold. The channel had heavily promoted the block on its own air and through media buys aimed at hard-core gamers. Microsoft hyped the coverage across its media.
G4 intends to keep the programming alive through free video-on-demand. Fans can pick which parts of the block they want to watch beginning next week through such cable systems as Comcast, Time Warner and Cox.