How Zune Morphed Into Haven for Artists on the Rise

What Began as an Alternative Marketing Effort by Microsoft Now Has Its Own Goals

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Zune Arts was born more than two years ago as part of an alternative marketing effort by Microsoft that invited emerging artists to create online art around social themes to help launch the Zune digital music player, designed to challenge Apple's iPod.
'Masks' was created by New York animators PandaPanther and features the music of The Black Angels.
'Masks' was created by New York animators PandaPanther and features the music of The Black Angels.

The Zune Arts program consisted primarily of a website, zune-arts.net, featuring short films and music from up-and-coming artists, all of which focused on the theme of sharing and friendship -- one of the player's key attributes. But since then the website has morphed into an online haven for emerging artists and musicians. While still part of the Zune family of marketing initiatives and still touting the "sharing" themes, Zune Arts now has its own goals and audience and has become established in the indie arts community.

By late 2007, Microsoft and its "curator" agency, 72andSunny, realized there was a much bigger audience it could introduce itself to: Zune Arts' hip and emerging art and artists not only could generate good will with a larger group of influencers, but also lend a cool edge to Zune and boost the music player's sales, which to date have not exactly skyrocketed.

Viral made sense
Because Zune Arts already had an arsenal of artist-created just-for-online videos, a push in the viral video direction made sense. The site already had the videos and music free and readily available for downloading and forwarding. So Microsoft and 72andSunny turned to Feed Co., a specialty media company that seeds video. Feed creates marketing campaigns that get videos in front of online influencers and relevant consumers with the goal of generating postings, pass-alongs and recommendations to create a selected critical mass -- and maybe even go viral.

In November, Feed Co. began working a Zune Arts video called "Masks," created by New York animators PandaPanther with music by The Black Angels, from Austin, Texas. The Feed team began a two-month strategy of going online to niche indie film and music sites, lifestyle publications and more general video sites while targeting art and music communities or individuals within YouTube, MySpace and Heavy.

Feed created a branded environment on YouTube, sent e-mails to bloggers, posted on forums and called contacts and acquaintances. Within a month "Masks" tallied 200,000 views on YouTube; good for a niche animation project, but the animators wanted more. So they went back to everyone they had originally contacted and asked them to help get "Masks" to YouTube's home page by petitioning their favorite film or animation editor.

YouTube success
One week later they got an e-mail from the YouTube film and video editor saying she was considering "Masks" for a feature. Another week later, the video was on the home page of YouTube -- where it stayed for six days -- and has now had more than 1.2 million views.

Did all that maneuvering and all those views ultimately sell more Zune music players? Maybe, maybe not. But that's not necessarily the point here, said Feed Co. President Josh Warner.

"This is very much a brand-awareness medium. ... We complement a more traditional marketing campaign," he said. "I can't say we've moved the sales needle, but I would say we've helped build strong brands."

Video seeding is a fairly new marketing concept. But the idea seems to make sense. After all, most marketers would agree that just throwing up a video on YouTube is probably not going to get it widely seen.

A way to discover
"The value of this service is that they help ensure people who like to discover things, discover your content where they want to," said Glenn Cole, co-founder and creative director of 72andSunny. "To me, the mental image of what they do is that they're like the guys who put the Easter Eggs out in the yard when they're seven years old, and they do it really well. They could just put it out on the tree stump in the middle of the yard -- and some clients want a giant egg out in the yard that no one can possibly miss -- but I think [for other clients] the hiding makes their content feel more special when you finally find it."

And although viral video is oft-tossed about as branded-entertainment gold, analysts and agencies also agree that "going viral" should not be the goal in creating or disseminating online videos.

"That's the problem -- it's a one-hit wonder," said Forrester Research senior analyst Jeremiah Owyang. "If you instead have an ongoing process and really become relevant in your target market, you'll hit 80% of your target vs. a one-hit wonder that hits a large percentage of people but not your target."

The problem is that marketers can't get past the allure of those big hits.

Engagement another draw
"Viral video is not only cool and [has] potentially lower distribution costs, but the other draw is engagement. The audience is passing the word along and your message now comes with their halo. It's a very sexy proposition on several fronts. But the question is, can you build processes that are predictable and cost efficient to do it? I think we're very early in that process," said Jupiter Research analyst David Card.

Feed's Mr. Warner said he can. And although he said his company has had one truly viral video -- meaning it received wide mainstream viewing -- in his company's one-and-a-half-years in business, that doesn't mean branded videos are a waste of marketing dollars.

"It's very rare that marketers have a viral video. But what they do have is great video that needs to -- and can -- find a great audience of engaged consumers," Mr. Warner said.
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