If You Build a Web Series Around It, Will They Come?

For Some Brands, the Answer Is an Enthusiastic Yes; for Others, Not So Much

By Published on .

Reprints Reprints

LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- In the past three years, it seems "Make me a branded web series" has become the new "Make me a viral video" for marketers, with brands as varied as Ikea, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese and even Poise incontinence pads all trying their hands at branded storytelling online. But as these webisodes clamor to find audiences in increasingly fragmented numbers, a larger metric for success pervades: Did they actually deliver on the hoped-for ROI for the brand?

For marketers, the typical web series consists of a half-dozen five-minute episodes costing an average of $100,000 to $1 million to create -- a paltry sum considering a typical 30-second spot can cost more than three times the price the most expensive web show.

Yet the bar has been high ever since "In the Motherhood," an online sitcom co-created by Mindshare Entertainment on behalf of clients Sprint and Unilever, became a massive hit on MSN, accumulating more than 16 million views by its second season and eventually becoming a sitcom for ABC. But its swift broadcast cancellation forced advertisers and producers alike to re-evaluate the ultimate metric for determining a web series' long-term success: Instead of being picked up by a TV network, why isn't re-investment by the brand the new barometer for success?

As the web matures as an original entertainment platform, so do the metrics for success. Ad Age took a look at the vast crop of web series from the past year to spotlight 10 that worked and three that did not.

"Buppies" and "My Black Is Beautiful"

Procter & Gamble

The Premise: Procter & Gamble's dedicated line of products targeted toward black women got the entertainment approach last fall when the country's top marketer co-produced two web series with BET. "Buppies," a scripted drama, featured presenting sponsorship and product integration for Cover Girl's Queen Collection, while "My Black Is Beautiful" showcased the eponymous line of P&G products in makeover settings.

The Result: "Buppies," BET's first original web series, has attracted more than 2 million views online since launch, while "My Black Is Beautiful," the TV series, drew an average 3.6 million viewers in its second season on BET. The My Black Is Beautiful collection has seen sales grow 20% in the first half of 2010, while dollar-share increases during second-quarter 2010 were seen by participating brands Pantene (up 14%), Cover Girl (4%) and Olay (up 3%).



"Easy to Assemble"

Ikea

The Premise: Indie actress Illeana Douglas takes a job at an Ikea to escape the confines of Hollywood, only to find that a host of other actors (Justine Bateman, Tim Meadows, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Arnold, Cheri Oteri) are already working there. Ikea came onboard as an integrated sponsor to raise its profile among hip, cash-conscious furniture shoppers.

The Result: Produced for a shoestring mid-six-figure budget that includes a name cast, some location shooting in Burbank and no external media buys, "Easy to Assemble" is the little web series that could. During its second-season run from October 2009 to January 2010, the show accumulated 12 million video views, 5,000 iPhone-app downloads and more than 34,000 mentions on social media. The show returns for a third season this fall.



"In Gayle We Trust"

American Family Insurance

The Premise: Gayle Evans ("Clueless" star Elisa Donovan) is a small-town insurance agent who tries to be all things to all people in this branded sitcom for American Family Insurance, created for NBC's Digital Studio. The series is part of a larger branded-entertainment program Mindshare Entertainment helped plan for AFI, including an MSN financial-advice video series and custom content for CBS Radio.

The Result: The first season attracted nearly 3 million views, enough for American Family Insurance to renew it for a just-launched second season (NBC Digital Studio's first multiseason pickup). In aggregate, American Family Insurance's branded-entertainment program yielded a 20% lift in quote starts and a 24% increase in purchase intent. Requests for an agent also got a measurable boost from the program's microsites.



"The Real Women of Philadelphia"

Kraft

The Premise: Kraft teamed with its Publicis agencies Kraft Content One and Digitas, as well as social-media entertainment company EQAL, for a video contest to promote its Paula Deen-hosted brand relaunch of Philadelphia Cream Cheese last September. Fans were asked to submit videos of consumer-generated recipes using the Philly staple, with a chance to win $25,000 and participate in a cook-off with Ms. Deen in Georgia.

The Result: More than 4,000 recipes were submitted to the contest's microsite, which has logged more than 600,000 unique visitors since its March launch. Additionally, Paula Deen's YouTube video for the contest has been viewed more than 10 million times, an indication of the campaign's broader cultural awareness. As part of a multimillion-dollar relaunch for the brand, the contest has helped Philly Cream Cheese achieve a 6% increase in sales since last September.



"The Temp Life"

Spherion

The Premise: Staffing and temping agency Spherion wanted to make students, recent grads and entry-level professionals aware of its job-finding services when it signed up to sponsor CJP Digital Media's "The Temp Life" back in 2006. As the series evolved and the job market worsened, the "Temp Life" took on an almost meta-reality for the agency as its audience adopted the temp lifestyle portrayed by the series' characters.

The Result: Recently renewed for a fifth season, "The Temp Life" has quietly become the longest-running branded series on the web, with each season adding an average of 85% more viewers, according to web-video measurement firm Tubefilter. Spherion Corp. CEO Roy Krause has publicly declared the series his company's top marketing priority.*

Five more that worked

"Into The Heart of Italy," Bertolli
Why It Worked: Unilever's reality series starring Marisa Tomei logged more than 40 million views across the web and boosted the Bertolli brand's volume, unit share and dollar share compared to the 12-week period prior to the show's launch.

"Hellmann's Real Food Project," Hellmann's Mayonnaise
Why It Worked: Another Unilever series, the microsite's videos were viewed more than 600,000 times and helped the mayonnaise brand outperform the rest of Unilever's otherwise flat spreads products during the first quarter it aired.

"Business on Main," Sprint (MSN.com)
Why It Worked: Sprint's custom content for the small-business owner was successful and sticky, with more than 7.7 million video views, 84,000 pieces of content shared and 58% of users watching at least one episode all the way through.

"1 in 3 Like Me," Poise
Why It Worked: The campaign, which starred Whoopi Goldberg, made light bladder leakage a hot topic (and the subject of an "SNL" skit), and helped the Kimberly-Clark pads achieve the highest share of the incontinence category's sales in the brand's history.

"Fit to Boom," Subway
Why It Worked: Logging over 4.5 million total site visits, "Fit to Boom" saw 3 million video views at a 50% completion rate and boosted purchase intent among baby boomers by 12%.

Three that didn't work

"The Broadroom," Maybelline
Why It Didn't Work: Candace Bushnell's first scripted web series attracted well-known actresses (Jennie Garth, Jennifer Esposito) and a smart partner (More magazine) but had poor distribution strategy. Available only on a Maybelline microsite, the series has logged a middling 433,000 views to date.

"The Narrow World of Sports With Peter Mehlman," Palm Pre
Why It Didn't Work: YouTube's splashy branded-entertainment debut had a familiar host ("Seinfeld" alum Mehlman) interviewing big-name athletes, but viewers didn't latch on very quickly -- the series banked less than 1 million total views. Sponsor Palm Pre didn't have too good of a year either -- sales plunged by 29% in first quarter 2010.

"Woke Up Dead," Kodak
Why It Didn't Work: Sony's heavily hyped zombie series starring Jon Heder ("Napoleon Dynamite") started out strong with 1.4 million views in 10 days, but quickly lost viewers with a 56% drop-off in its second week and an average 6.54% decline in the weeks after. Neither sponsor Kodak nor the busy cast has signed up for a second season.

Three to watch

"The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers," Puma (Hulu)
It's "Step Up" meets "X-Men," as this new Paramount Digital series takes the medium to gravity-defying heights, courtesy of Puma. The show has routinely topped Hulu's most-viewed series since its July debut.
"Fact Checkers Unit," Samsung
Two amateur copy editors for a men's magazine enlist their Samsung phones to check the most obscure facts about guest stars such as rocker Dave Navarro, supermodel Karolina Kurkova and "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek.
"Around the World For Free," American Airlines and AT&T
"Big Brother" and "Amazing Race" alum Jeff Schroeder takes a consumer-generated trek across the globe paying not even as much of a dime for his travels, courtesy of transportation sponsor American Airlines and communications partner AT&T.

~ ~ ~
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Spherion Corp. had seen an increase in its stock price as a direct result of its sponsorship of "The Temp Life."

Most Popular