MSN's Branded-Entertainment Head Believes Media Is the New Creative

Gayle Troberman Says Using the Right Marketing Mix Builds a Loyal Audience

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Who: Gayle Troberman, senior director of MSN's Branded Entertainment and Experiences Team (BEET) at Microsoft.
MSN's Gayle Troberman works with marketers that want branded-content experiences online to help them connect with smaller segments of users every day rather than a TV-sized audience.

Why you need to know her: Ms. Troberman oversees the development of original content for MSN's websites that are sponsored by and integrate advertisers. It recently launched interactive cooking destination "Chef to the Rescue" with Kraft, which was produced by Ben Silverman's Reveille ("The Office," "The Biggest Loser"). Other projects have included "Avalanche Weekends" with General Motors, "Dog Central" with Pedigree, and Sprite's "Sublymonal" and "The Wall." The group, which has grown to 40 staffers, is now rolling out projects for Toyota Motor Sales USA's Lexus and Visa.

Credentials: Mr. Troberman has been with Microsoft for nearly 10 years, having served as director of marketing for several divisions, including e-commerce for MSN's auto, shopping, money, and house and home channels and as director of MSN programming before taking the reins of BEET. Before joining Microsoft, Ms. Troberman worked at now shuttered agencies N.W. Ayer & Partners and D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, where she managed clients such as Gillette, Hush Puppies, Kitchen Aid, IBM and Whirlpool.

How was the Branded Entertainment and Experiences Team conceived? "We started the team four years after realizing that advertisers were really coming around and really believe in online and that their consumers are there. They wanted to do interesting programs on the web, but at the time we had standard banner inventory to sell. We realized there was a huge opportunity for us. We asked ourselves, 'What would it take to deliver that never-been-done-before experience for advertisers?' We needed to be more aggressive, break some rules. We invested aggressively in our MSN Original and our branded-entertainment teams. It started as an experiment and has grown into a substantial team and substantial part of our business today."

What was the first project that you launched through BEET? "The first was a program with Lexus called 'Luxury for Living,' a beautifully designed, high-end luxury magazine for the web. It ran for two years."

What types of branded-entertainment projects have you produced recently and for what brands? "'Open for Design' is a program for [Nissan North America's] Infiniti that creates a discussion about design across different industries and companies focused on design as a core part of what they do. It's very interesting for an automotive company. It doesn't feature a particular car. There's also 'Chef to the Rescue,' hosted by Cat Cora and sponsored by Kraft; 'Live Tastefully,' a program sponsored by Amstel that features [chef] Anthony Bourdain and connects with a young professional audience. He's assembled a group of ambassadors who set out to find the best of where to go, what to eat."

Your branded-entertainment projects aren't the standard fare we're used to seeing. They're not one-off short films or mere product-placement or sponsorship deals. The content is actually pretty compelling and targets a specific customer. "We have the opportunity to bring the creative teams and the advertisers together and take the risk out of the equation. We can create a platform for them to connect and communicate with their consumers. We can do that from day one, instead of having them jam their message into the content. We get to sit at the table from the beginning with the advertisers and craft something unique. One of the things we really believe is [that] when we come together and bring our understanding of what the consumer is doing online and [the marketer] brings an incredible depth of their consumer and what drives them and motivates them, we build experiences together that we know will resonate with that audience segment. We're not diluting things for the mass."

What's next? "We just launched 'Business Breakthrough' for Visa, where we've tried to push the boundaries of how to use video to tell stories in an online experience. It's for the small-business consumer and what they struggle with. We have comedy-based shows like 'Driving School' and 'Airplane.' We're actively looking for advertisers and sponsors for those. We'll do the same we did with 'Chef to the Rescue' and bring them in early on and help shape that content and provide the right ways for them to connect with the consumers."

Is there a certain demo your projects reach? "We've reached a variety of audiences, touched most segments in one way or another. We build from the bottom up with that consumer and segment in mind. Moms, teens, young professionals. Volvo's 'What's Your Story?' targeted 25- to 54-year-olds. Sprite's 'The Wall' reached teens."

How long does each program run? "The majority of the programs run from 10 to 12 months. Some have run from two to three years."

That's a lot longer than most branded-entertainment projects. "When you have a successful program online, it makes sense to continue that and build that audience. You start to build communities around these experiences. Why would you want to walk away? 'Chef to the Rescue' is building a community of moms."

How many people are we talking about? "It's not like you're going to reach 20 million people in one night. In order to bring the right audience, it's a slow-build process. It's much more about connecting with smaller segments of users every day. Niche and segment-based media online is really replacing mass media. The beauty of these branded-entertainment experiences is they're designed to resonate with that niche segment."

What should marketers keep in mind when developing these types of branded-entertainment projects? "Whatever you put out there first probably isn't it. It's about being committed and seeing where consumers take it and evolving in the direction of where they go.

You've said before that it's still too early to know what exactly will work online when it comes to content or programming. "A lot of the beauty of web experiences and branded entertainment online is putting something compelling out there and letting consumers play with it and shape it."

How do you measure success for your brand clients? "For most of the deals, we'll guarantee a level of audience or metrics to the experience. We really believe we're as invested in this as the advertisers. We're building compelling content for the MSN consumers. We're in partnership with the advertisers. The first challenge is to find the right audience across the massive set of Microsoft digital ad solutions that we have: Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Spaces, MSN home page or MSN channels, Windows Office Live or Xbox. That's critical. Then, are the consumers engaging with the experiences? Are they spending a good enough of time there? Are they taking actions and doing things?"

Can you talk about any results you've seen? "We use a lot of Dynamic Logic research. Every year we take the whole body of work we shipped [and analyze the results]. We've found that the branded-entertainment experiences are 82% better at driving brand favorability than the average online campaign. They're also 95% better at driving purchase intent. Those are norms across all campaigns we did in the past year."

How do you promote the projects? "We'll do targeted advertising in the right portion of the websites. Targeted editorial promotions. Headlines on the home page that reach a mass -- hundreds of millions impressions."

With so much media out there on so many kinds of technology, it's got to be overwhelming for advertisers to choose one to launch a branded-entertainment experience. "Today, what we're seeing is a lot of marketers wanting webisodes, podcasts, social networking; they're following the tactic vs. how do you build an effective platform on the web. Media in many ways is the new creative. It's thinking about the whole media mix and what you want to accomplish. Maybe they need to work together or don't need to work together. That's what opens up this whole creative potential."

There is still some confusion out there as to what branded entertainment is. How do you define it? "Branded entertainment can be misleading. It means that the marketer and the content provider and the publisher are all coming together from the beginning to create something amazing for the consumers."

What are some good examples of branded entertainment that you've recently seen? "Some of the viral stuff that Axe has done has been phenomenal. It's clever content aimed at their audience that resonates well with them."

And bad? "Stuff that you see that just makes you cringe. [And] when you see folks chasing the next fad. You're starting to see too much produced user-generated stuff. As marketers throw a lot of money at fads, there is the potential for backlash. Consumers can see through what's great compelling content and what's purely trying to sell them."

What's on your TiVo? "'Lost,' 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,' 'The Daily Show,' 'The Office,' 'Ugly Betty,' old episodes of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' 'Family Guy.'"

What's on your iPod? "I don't have an iPod. I have an iRiver U10. I'm all over the place on music. I have plenty of retro '80s, some Flaming Lips, The Smiths, The Clash, Ben Lee, Daft Punk and angry music like Good Charlotte."

What do you do on your downtime? "If there were such a thing ... I have a weekend place on one of the islands. It's an unwired place, which is always great. Non-technology, non-digital living. I do a bunch of travel, check out bad bars, catch up with friends in any city I happen to be in."
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