TV networks snap up key words online to draw viewers

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Facing fragmented audiences and a plethora of media choices, marketing chiefs at the broadcast networks need to find ever more inventive ways to entice viewers, and this season they're turning to key words.

While online search advertising has been embraced on a wide scale by big brand marketers, it has taken some time for the major broadcasters to join the party. But with the widespread adoption of broadband Internet connections ramping up, several networks have bought online search terms from the likes of Google and Yahoo to direct surfers to their own Web sites to watch full-motion previews of the fall season.

"Our guys have always sought out the cool hunters," said Peter Liguori, president-entertainment of Fox Broadcasting Co., on why his network is using key words. "The marketing guys at Fox work in a very sophisticated fashion. They have a real desire to figure out what creates noise and buzz. [Viral] marketing is the strongest thing you can have."

For instance, for "Prison Break," a sponsored link on Google.com leads Web surfers to Fox.com/prisonbreak and a promotional site about the fall series, which launches today. The site is supported by advertising. According to media agency Initiative, "Prison Break" was the top show for positive buzz among consumer-generated media such as blogs and online discussion groups between May and July 2005. The network also bought key word "Reunion" to promote its series of the same name. Web surfers are directed to a site supported by, appropriately enough, Classmates.com.

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Fox isn't the first broadcast network in the game. George Schweitzer, president, CBS Marketing Group, said the network bought a number of search terms to help promote specials last season, such as November's "Category 6: Day of Destruction," and May's "Elvis." "We bought search words for `Elvis' that helped us out for sweeps and for [`Category 6'], we bought hurricane and weather-related terms in a concentrated period." The majority of CBS's key word purchases were on Google and Yahoo, he said.

Mr. Schweitzer finds more complex marketing techniques are necessary these days because, "Not everyone is watching all of your spots. You must be out there in different platforms in different mediums. We're branching out." CBS's media agency is Carat, known for encouraging marketers to try out non-traditional media tactics.

Search is also a relatively inexpensive way to promote a new show. Andy Wetzler, president of search engine optimization agency MoreVisibility, Boca Raton, Fla., said: "The amount of money you'd need to spend to effectively market a show via search is nominal."

`What people acutally use'

Search terms can be bought for 2¢ and up (depending on how fierce the bidding is) per click and can be bid on by anyone, even a broadcaster's competitors. The Web site TVshows.org, which sells broadband downloads of hit TV shows, occupies the sponsored link area for many of the new season's TV shows. It's easy to see why it might have taken a while for broadcast networks to catch on. Viewers looking for popular shows such as "The Apprentice" will be taken directly to NBC.com as part of Google's free search offering. Similarly, searches for "Freddie," a new show on ABC, pull up ABC's own Web site first, thus negating the need to acquire a sponsored link.

That's likely why ABC Entertainment Senior VP-Marketing Mike Benson isn't convinced that buying search terms is the way to go. "Search terms? We're looking at all kinds of things. The challenge is what makes most sense and what people actually use. We have to be careful. I don't want to invest money that gives us a low return on investment. High ROI is what we're looking for and the alternative things are low-cost ideas."

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"The amount of money you’d need ... to effectively market a show is nominal," said Andy Wetzler of MoreVisibility. Terms can be purchased for as little as 2¢ per click and can be bid on by anyone.

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