That must-see, bite-sized content, rather than bland promotions for new episodes, is what advertisers have been seeking as the world of multiplatform programming explodes. ABC gave fans and marketers alike the "Lost Experience," a giant web game aimed at extending the "Lost" story line from the small screen to the third screen. Mr. Benson and the ABC sales department tapped numerous marketers for help in support of one of the most ambitious viral-marketing strategies in modern TV history. Together with Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite, Monster.com, Verizon and DaimlerChrysler's Jeep, ABC planted secrets to unlocking some of the story lines in the new season of "Lost," returning on Oct. 4.
"I'm looking at marketing more like content," says Mr. Benson. "We have got to find other ways to engage beyond the typical promo. If we can take the program, explore the stories and perpetuate the mystery ... and people can share this stuff, it furthers the relationship with the audience. We're crafting content, and we work with the sales department and ... integrate them with the original marketing materials."
Mr. Benson views his own promotional ad budget as a way to create content that can get advertisers involved. Central to the marketing of "Lost" has been the promo of a fictional company, the Hanso Foundation. For Losties, the company needs no explanation, but for others, Hanso will figure big in season three of the show as the entity behind the "hatch."
No marketing partner behind the web game is at liberty to talk because of the need to maintain the "alternate reality" of the whole "Lost Experience" enterprise. Still, it's easy to view the results of those marketing efforts. Verizon established a website called broadbandstories.com with a button linking to Hanso, while Monster set up a website called Hansocareers.com for those looking for a job with the company. Coca-Cola relaunched Sprite with a website, sublymonal.com with clues that flash on the screen for an instant. Jeep also sprinkled clues at letyourcompassguideyou.com.
In addition to what's happening officially, (though no one's saying what's real and what isn't) fan sites have metastasized all over the internet, especially at broadband-video site YouTube.com, which lists 242 "Lost Experience" videos. As of mid-August, one site had attracted an astounding 24,000 views.
One ad agency involved in creating "Lost" video content is Minneapolis-based Met Hodder, which has a reputation as a cutting-edge firm in the world of TV promotions. Met Hodder not surprisingly can't talk about its work on the "Lost Experience," but the company is working on a half -hour "Lost" special produced in concert with Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly staff that will be offered to ABC affiliates and aimed at those viewers who are confounded by what they've missed the last two seasons. (For Mr. Benson a marketing challenge this fall is reaching viewers who feel too out of the loop to get into "Lost.")
Founder Kent Hodder offers some advice for marketers looking to work on alternative platforms. "The advertiser should be able to clearly see that the content is being strategically designed to be effective for what we view as individual platform 'vitals.' " He lists those vital elements as: demographics and time, place, device and situation information for how the consumer encounters the content. "We know that for small-format work, such as iPod, mobile and web, the composition of the footage is critical, avoiding dark scenes or wide shots."
For advertisers that did tie in with the "Lost Experience," the most important question when the game winds up in October will be not "Did they pick up the clues?" but "Did they get my message, too?"