Monday, December 17, 2007

Battle of the Network Webstars: Evaluating the "Big Four's" websites

There's a lot of cool stuff on network websites - but does it deliver anything new to the user - or the advertiser?

In the past couple of years, the major networks have been sprucing up their web sites, in an effort to keep them, shall we say, new media compliant. When I used to develop sites for TV shows (back in 2005 or so), not much was needed to be seen as relevant and informative. You could create a seemingly "complete" site with sections for cast bios, episode guides and a trailer for “next week’s episode”. Today, full episode streams, blogs, widgets, and even tag clouds are the norm. But has all the 2.0 bling actually improved the user experience and the ever elusive site stickiness? And perhaps more importantly, have all the new gizmos made these destinations better places to market your product? I recently spent some time visiting the web portals for the big four (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) to answer some of these questions for myself.
Here's what I found:

Virtually all the network web sites now contain full episode streams with limited commercial interruptions. But despite the opportunity to own mindshare (at least, for 30 minutes) and truly engage the user, few advertisers actually took advantage of it. Most full episode streams featured the same 30 second spot, shown during each commercial break, with a banner or other ad unit adjacent (rarely with a compelling call to action).

As mentioned, network webmasters have clearly been reading all the buzz about web 2.0, and have been feverishly incorporating it into their portals. But some shows are more gizmo friendly than others. For example, I can see placing a widget on my Facebook page with a constant feed of new SNL sketch content . But I’m less excited about one that promises all “the latest dirt” on Jericho (full disclosure: I’m an SNL fan). And I couldn’t quite see the point of those tag clouds for the Amazing Race, though I do like the idea of giving superfans the outlet of an Amazing Race wiki.

The most interesting surprise was the web exclusive content. Much was simply repurposed from on air segments, but several of the networks are beginning to produce online only episodic series. And some of them aren’t even that awful. For example, despite the uber-cheesiness of “Coastal Dreams” (an online soap from, I did find myself watching it through not just one but three commercial breaks (and cheese or no, isn’t that the point?). And it certainly beat the pants off of any of the original content on Youtube or the hot UGC destinations.
Finally, even though the network sites offered many of the same features, they did vary from one another in several key areas. Here’s a summary of what I found in my recent deep dive into the nets of the networks:

What makes it special:
ABC was the first to do full episode streaming, and since then, all the other networks have pretty much embraced their model. But, for my money, their player is still the best: giant picture size, limited clutter, great picture quality.
I was also intrigued by “Start Now”: a series of cleverly designed icons, that tell the user where (aside from on TV) each program is available: online, wireless, ipod, etc. More than just convenient, it positions their programming not as TV shows but as episodic content available wherever and however you want it –forseeing exactly where this market is going.

An objective measure, but that beautiful player does keep me watching, even through some of my less favorite programming like “Samantha Who”. But, I didn’t see much (or any) original content, unlike the other networks

Advertiser friendliness:
Audio/video ad spots automatically played on the home page, which I found a bit annoying – however, I suppose that’s just the intrusiveness advertisers are looking for. But I did see some missed opportunities on the site: Extreme Makeover, which should have been littered with hundreds of “available ats”, merely listed out sponsors' products, with little detail, and no information on how to get them, and all well below the fold.
The player ads were also a little disappointing. I’ve seen some really cool interactive ads during ABC’s episode streaming, but here was just the same 30 second ad, over and over again. Even if you don’t want to bother with interactivity, these players seem to offer an ideal venue for a narrative series (“scenes from a scrubbing bubble marriage: a tale in three parts?”) that would engage the viewer in a way TV ads never could.
What Makes it Special
Those web exclusives, mentioned above. I particularly enjoyed Pale Force, the animated series from Conan O’Brian. And as I mentioned, Coastal Dreams was better than I expected and bordered on guilty pleasure status. But this isn’t surprising, as NBC was something of a pioneer web content, a la SNL digital shorts on iTunes.
Additionally, overall, just seems a little more content rich than the other web sites.

Aside from the wide variety of content, NBC’s reality/game programming lends itself beautifully to the web and can cause a user to waste hours on the site. Particularly insidious is the “Deal or No Deal” online game based on the show’s premise – which I understand is the one of’s most popular features.

Advertiser Friendliness:
All that content provides great sponsorship opportunities, but’s strength is also a weakness. The home page packs so much in that it feels cluttered, making the ads a little more difficult to find vs., say,’s.
Also, the NBC player gives advertisers a wide berth, plenty of space to include either full screen ads or a video ad with adjacent interactive banners . Of all the networks, however, this is the only one that appeared to include ads from more than one sponsor not only during the show, but within a single break.
What Makes It Special:
Though a little buried, actually seemed to have more original web programming than anyone else, ranging from a low budget soap to a redneck cooking show to an “Apprentice” clone reality show. Given the average age of the CBS viewer (which I believe is around 60), this came as quite a surprise. And the CBS webmasters have done their 2.0 homework, with blogs, wikis, and widgets galore – but do those 60 year olds even know what any of those things are? Some explanation would be useful, or maybe even a reason to click on all this stuff.

No hit game shows to copy on the web, so those addictive little games like “Deal or No Deal” are missing. And the player, with it’s small screen and clutter-y cross –sell, doesn’t make me want to spend an afternoon with it. However, with the writers strike shutting down more shows every day, maybe all that original web programming may keep an audience coming back.

Advertiser Friendliness:
The home page is nicely laid out and only has one primary sponsor, who dominates the page with a gigantic leaderboard that eventually collapses into a thin header. The player, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The video space is small and competes with all that cross sell, and there’s no timer for the commercials- and personally, knowing there are just a few seconds left keeps me watching through these annoying but necessary interruptions.
What Makes It Special
If anything, the Fox site is noteworthy for what it doesn’t have. No web originals, no fancy wikis or widgets – an ironic twist, given how aggressive Fox has been in the new media space, with its many acquisitions, mobisodes, and the like. It does, however, render the site a bit less cluttered and easier to navigate than the other networks’.

As mentioned, gizmos do not necessarily equal stickiness, and the lack of them was not a problem for me. Fox’s clean design equaled easy navigation and an invitation to stay for awhile. Other pluses were its slick media player and addictive “Smarter than a Fifth Grader” game. However, there was little in the way of special content or activities for obsessive fans of say, Family Guy (like myself), which would have kept me there a lot longer.

Advertiser Friendliness
Fox’s uncluttered interface helps the few ads there to stand out even more. However, the Fox site missed the same opportunities – purchase links to iTunes, interactive or narrative player ads , etc. – as the others.

Overall, the network sites have evolved dramatically in the last few years. Once merely the go to place for show schedules and cast bios, they now attract and keep viewers with extensive video content, original series, and involving games and 2.0 activities. And there are some great opportunities for aggressive, creative advertisers, even if they’re not all being taken advantage of yet. Maybe someday those ads will be as fun and entertaining as everything else on the sites.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Brave New World of Facebook Marketing

Separating the hype from the help for marketers intrigued by what Facebook might offer them

Facebook has received so much hype of late, that any digital marketing strategy might be seen as wanting if it doesn’t contain a Facebook plan. And Facebook does offer quite a few options, from what I’ve seen – but some seem a lot more interesting than others. Below is my own, highly subjective assessment of some of the options currently available to marketers –plus a few more services that I’d try out if Facebook would someday offer them:

The Facebook Page
The answer to every brand manager’s question “where’s my brand’s Facebook page?” (formerly “where’s my MySpace page?”), I suppose not having one would seem pretty old school. Thousands of brands are listed on Facebook, both corporate sponsored (“the official Sprite facebook page”) and fan generated “addicted to Coca-Cola)
· Positives: you can at least tell your CMO that yes, you do have a Facebook page, and therefore are connected with the youth of today. And, a Facebook page can be a great tool to notify users and fans of special offers, events, promotions, etc.
· Drawbacks: some brands seem better suited to a Facebook page than others (e.g., Maroon 5 vs. Tide detergent). And, those fan generated ones seem so much more sincere and effective than the “official” profiles. I’d rather spend my money encouraging fans to create their own profiles about my product.

Hypertargeted Ads
This most obvious of uses simply looks at users preferences and profiles, and delivers ads based on this information. It’s thought to be superior to say, MySpace’s targeted ads, since anonymous profiles are not permitted and users are therefore thought to be more honest about what they reveal about themselves.
· Positives: highly contextual. At least in theory, hyper-targeted ads should be hyer-relevant to the user
· Negatives: you can either be too targeted and big brother-ish, or not targeted enough and come off like those TIVO suggestions that don’t make sense. The ideal is a happy medium where users don’t think they’re being tracked, just that Facebook magically knows exactly what they want and when they want it – just like a good friend should.

Facebook shopping – users can opt to have their friends alerted when they make an e-commerce purchase; e.g., twenty of your friends have just purchased “Microtrends” on Amazon.
· Positives: this is being heavily hyped by Facebook, largely because it leverages user preferences and behavior to facilitate the word of mouth recommendations that all marketers covet.
· Negatives: once again, the Big Brother risk: do you really want the world to know about your hemorrhoid medication purchased at; or your spouse to see the copy of “Your Divorce Advisor” from

Brand as widget advertising:
Going beyond the Facebook page, marketers can now create widgets built around their brands. For example, Red Bull Roshambull allows users to challenge their friends in a “rock paper scissors” type game. “Sprite Sips” a customizable animated character based on the Sprite brand.
· Positives: classic permission marketing, users are only interrupted if they really want it; a really clver and useful app that organically springs from the brand could score big on visibility, engagement, brand values and all those other cool KPIs.
· Negatives: the brand based apps that I’ve seen seem to either shoehorn a brand into a traditional game or challenge, or reflect too much brand and not enough utility. I couldn’t help but notice that brands or products have inspired many an app (e..g, Starbuck’s app, Fast Food Fight featuring McDonald’s products, Wedding Crashers app). I’d rather offer tools, like images and information, to the app-o-sphere and let them keep on developing apps around my brands, but with approved content.

And here’s a few that aren’t (as far as I know) being offered, but perhaps should:
· Facebook Intelligence: Facebook has the raw material to predict and assess market trends, teen/young adult consumption behavior, and slice and dice it by demographic, psychographic and every other criteria a marketer can dream up. All they need is someone to analyze and package the info into actionable bites for today’s data hungry and time starved marketer.
· Facebook research: surveys, quizzes, online focus groups with the youth of America (and the world). The recruiting pool alone is enough to launch this service, as no one else has as great an ability to gather a representative sample of marketers’ increasingly specific target audiences.
· Facebook evangelists: with all that data, I’m sure that Facebook could easily find, say, 100 teen thought leaders to sample and evangelize anything from new athletic shoes to face cream. Yes, these evangelists can add applications, include brand video on their walls, etc., but there’s no reason marketers can’t send them free samples and ask (or incent) them to promote the products offline as well.

My overall assessment? Facebook offers some interesting new opportunities for contextual advertising – I would put a few dollars of my marketing budget towards testing some of these out. However, there are certain risks that could undercut Facebook’s intention to change advertising for the “next hundred years” (as they predict): users may see some of the products as a little too contextual and have privacy concerns; users may not be entirely frank about what they reveal about themselves (I have personally seen quite a few fibs in friends’ profiles); and finally, as Facebook appears to have supplanted MySpace as the social networking site de jour, might another “disruptive” giant be waiting in the wings?

Attack of the Web Video Destinations

I try to make sense of the ever expanding world of web video…

Last night, I decided to kick back on the lazyboy, fire up the laptop, and enjoy some good old fashioned web video. I quickly got confused. I was soon bombarded by Veoh, Vimeo and Viddler…Metacafe, Megavideo and Motionbox. And those are just the M’s and the V’s. How to differentiate between all these richly VC funded start-ups? An even tougher question if I’m an investor, or worse yet, an advertiser. Just to sort it all out, I created my own rudimentary segmentation model. Here’s what I found:

Slick, big media financed entertainment sites: This is video content for users that want their favorite TV shows online, preferably provided by Big Media. The most famous example is probably iTunes, which first offered full episodes of your favorite shows online. Now Hulu, (co-owned by Newscorp and Fox) is offering a kind of streaming version of iTunes TV, with full episodes of about 100 TV shows from Fox, MGM, and Sony Television. And, you can always hit the major network sites (,, etc.) for a fix of your favorite sitcom –they all offer streams of their most popular shows.

Pure UGC sites: These are the Wild West of web video, containing mostly random user generated content. Started by YouTube, there are now a great many competitors, such as veoh, metacafe, etc. There’s plenty of illegal copywrited content here, and plenty of unwatchable amateur attempts at entertainment. The main advantage of these guys seems to be quantity vs. quality. For example, you can type in the name of virtually any band into YouTube, and pull up a wide selection of their music videos. Virtually any current movie trailer you can think of will be there too.

Niche oriented video: somewhere between these two extremes are the equivalent of independent film studios: sites that feature professionally produced content on microscopic budgets, but with a distinct point of view. For example, is 60 minutes for the “Maxim” audience. aspires to be a kind of aspiriational “E” channel, with segments on fashion and celebrity.

So who will win in this cacophony of new content? There are, of course, a lot of people thinking about this question, but here’s my point of view: it’s entirely possible to go up against the slick Big Media sites - but your product needs to be supported by a distinct brand and point of view. Cable television was a wasteland of miscellanea until the niche networks finally found their voice, a la FX (edgy, HBO like drama for free), MTV (youth lifestyle and music), or even Spike (mindless entertainment for young men). In addition to giving viewers a specific reason to tune in, cable’s evolution also let advertisers finally figure out who they were reaching, and even gave them a relevant brand with which to associate themselves.

That’s why I find the niche trend so interesting. They might not always be successful, but at least the vbs’s and the ego’s of the world are trying to differentiate themselves, to their audience and their sponsors. I’d keep an eye out for this relatively new subcategory.

There also seems to be a movement towards more professionally produced content. Sites like Crackle, for example, are offering budgets to budding auteurs to produce their concepts. In this respect, there appears to be some real convergence happening between studio content like “The Office” and the pure UGC chaos of YouTube.
Which brings me to my final point: whether it’s generated by a geek with a camcorder or a production team at a major studio, all content is ultimately user generated.
And frankly, audiences won’t care – they just want what every consumer wants: something that’s unique, better, and offers an alternative to what’s been available on their 500 TV channels.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

YouTube and CNN: Branding in the Age of 2.0

What the recent Presidential debates say about YouTube, CNN, and the nature of branding in a changing media world

As a consultant to many start-ups with limited budgets, I am often asked about how to stretch limited funds to make a big impact. Promotions, traditional and web advertising, “viral” marketing and other tactics are often considered, as are sponsorships .
Watching the CNN debates, sponsored by YouTube, I was struck by how much they got out of this deal, considering how little it cost them. For a new media company with an unconventional business model, YouTube sure followed a lot of basic rules about how to make a sponsorship work for you:

• Make sure the audience knows who the sponsor is: NASCAR has so many sponsors, even die-hard fans are hard-pressed to name all but a handful of them. Half of all viewers thought the 1996 Olympics were sponsored by Pepsi (Coke spent hundreds of millions as official sponsor). But no one watching the CNN debates could be similarly confused. The YouTube name was thoroughly integrated into every aspect of the debate, from the name to the format to the permanent screen presence throughout the program’s two hours. As a bonus, the limit of three commercial interruptions virtually guaranteed that no one would come away thinking that for example, Google Video sponsored the event.

• The sponsorship should reflect what your brand is all about: YouTube, as its name implies, is all about participation, democratization, and self expression. The 5000 video submissions, the direct contact between constituents and candidates, and the sometimes looney (and sometimes inspired) video creations from both debates reinforced those values in a way that a stadium sign or a corporate suite never could.

• Get more bang for your buck, especially compared to more traditional forms of advertising: The Democratic debate drew over 2.5 million users; the Republican debate drew over 4.5 million. But this doesn’t even count the millions of impressions on CNN leading up to the debates, or the mass coverage the following day in traditional media outlets such as the New York Times, and countless political blogs like the Huffington Post. It also happened to extend YouTube’s awareness beyond its core audience of young men to folks as far afield as my parents, septuagenarians that never heard of YouTube before the debates.

Finally, by integrating itself so deeply into a centuries old American ritual, YouTube subtly positioned itself as the undisputed leader in the increasingly crowded field of user generated video. Perhaps some of the Republicans jostling for position today could take a page from YouTube’s playbook.

Monday, December 3, 2007

New New Media: Tactics to Watch For in ’08

Beyond the Second Life storefront and the MySpace page - still more new ways to connect with your consumer

Some have been toyed with for years but are only now coming into their own; others are big in Japan, or Europe, but not the U.S….yet. Others have just been proposed, but virtually no one’s tried them out yet. Below are a few emerging new media marketing tactics that I think show great promise and will be interesting to watch in the coming year:

Retail Flash Mobs
What is it?
Got a hot sale going on and you need to generate hype and store traffic? With retail flash mobs, users can sign up for real time notifications the second prices are dropped or a new product hits the shelves.
Who’s tried it?
Adidas did this at the recent NBA All Star game in Las Vegas, notifying users on their cell phones when a limited edition All Star shoe became available. Fans mobbed the adidas performance store, whose sales rose 20 fold for the day.
And I like it…why?
First of all, who is organized enough to save all those mailers touting “advance notice” sales? This is a great alternative for forgetful folks like myself. Plus, the sense of immediacy and urgency increases the likelihood that I’ll dash to the store as soon as I get the message.

Participative Billboards
What is it?
These are digital billboards whose message can be altered by users, either by sending a text or e-mail message to an address that feeds directly into the billboard on a real time basis.
Who’s tried it?
BBC for one, who asked users to text their votes on politically charged issues on giant billboards in New York. Opinionated New Yorkers could see their answers in real time tallies appearing prominently on the billboards themselves.
And I like it…why?
Appeals to the exhibitionist in all of us and of course engages the user vastly more than a traditional billboard. Heck, even those who would never spend time texting their opinions to a giant piece of wood would probably at least take a peek at what everyone else saying.

Interactive TV Borders
What is it?
A graphic overlay on the borders of a TV program containing messages, advertising, and opportunities to interact using your phone (e.g., text to win) or even your remote control.
Who’s tried it?
No one yet, but Bravo TV will test this during their March 2008 “A List” Awards show, where users may be able to enter advertiser sponsored sweeps, receive coupons and special offers, or special web or wireless content.
And I like it…why?
This has to be highly contextual and value added to work (vs. an extra commercial running on the borders of your screen during programming), but it can actually make the viewing experience richer while helping advertisers get their message across at the same time. If done right, you can even train the viewer to pay attention to this border whenever it appears, lest they overlook cool content or freebies. Plus, for the terminally lazy, it is easier to just click on a remote button vs. enter a url or whip out your phone to send a text message.

Facebook’s New Marketing Wonderland
What is it?
Mark Zuckerberg recently announced a whole new set of advertiser opportunities on Facebook that he claims will practical reinvent marketing. Too many to go into here (watch soon for a separate post dedicated to this topic), but they largely leverage the vast amount of information Facebook users reveal voluntarily and through their web behavior
Who’s tried it?
Virtually every brand with an ad budget now has a Facebook page, and I understand that over 60 advertisers have already signed up for some of the new, contextual and recommendation based products.
And I like it…why?
Not everything Facebook is offering is new or even innovative. But there are some interesting opportunities to get users to market your products for you, and the context element, if used properly, can make your message much more relevant. But as I said, watch soon for a more complete evaluation.

Webmaster tools for non-webmasters
What is it?
When I was at Warner Bros., we used to do special “webmaster programs”, giving for example, those with Harry Potter fan sites special content, downloadables, advance news, etc. But today, in the age of Facebook, MySpace, blogs and RSS feeds, everyone is a webmaster with their own customized destination. Hence, some companies are making what was once “webmaster content” available to today’s 2.0 webmasters.
Who’s tried it?
Red Bull is the best example I’ve seen, with fun (read: not overly branded) content available for your RSS feed, your blog, your Facebook profile, etc.
And I like it…why?
Another great way to turn users into marketers using widely available technology. Plus, any idea that entertains or amuses your audience while subtly plugging your brand will, to me, always beat out a direct pitch.

Interactive Taxi Ads
What is it?
Interactive PDA-like screens on the back seats of taxi, which let passengers play games, watch video, and find out more information, all focused around advertisers’ brands.
Who’s tried it?
P & G, KFC, Volkswagon and many other usual suspects, although most activity had been in China, where passengers tend to be upscale, sophisticated and engaged. According to provider Touchscreen Media, 89% of passengers play with the screens.
And I like it…why?
A captive and engaged audience is a marketers dream. Provided as always that true value (vs. a direct sell) is offered, I can see this working on planes, buses, trains, anywhere with a captive audience looking for something to do (aside from check their Blackberries).