As the Wild West of online video content continues to grow and develop, new avenues are opening up to those pioneering writers who are interested in forging their own path. Enterprising feature scribes have long had the film festival route as an option to work outside the studio system; however, episodic writers looking to do the same have had more of a challenge, due to the high cost of television production and the lack of independent distribution options.
Over the past several years, this has begun to change. Inexpensive, professional-quality digital cameras and desktop editing software have mitigated cost issues, and the Internet is evolving as a platform by which to deliver independent shows to audiences. Online viewers have embraced short form content, making the web a natural destination for those who want to experiment with the episodic format, as opposed to feature-length material.
While many traditional media companies have been slow to embrace the creation of original online video content, advertisers have shown a greater willingness to experiment in the space, signing on for such WGAW-covered series such as In the Motherhood and Skin Season, both produced by Science + Fiction. Advertiser funding of content takes many forms, from pre-roll ads accompanying content or the simple “Brought to you by...”, to more complex executions involving product integration woven into entire storylines.
Creatively, only you, the writer, can decide whether or not working with a brand is right for your project. Venturing into this world means an expanded entrepreneurial role and a few new tasks for which you’ll have to be prepared. I attended the Ad:Tech San Francisco conference in an effort to better understand what funders of online video are thinking. Ad:Tech describes itself as “...the leading organizer of conferences and exhibitions for the interactive marketing community worldwide.”
Jaime Cohen Szulc, Senior VP, Levi Strauss & Co. and Chief Marketing Officer, Levi’s Brand, kicked off Ad:Tech with a Keynote address that encouraged brands to venture into online video. He noted that while brands want control, this becomes harder as audiences fragment and multi-task. Venturing online means ceding some of that control, which can scare companies out of the space. Szulc urged the brands in the crowd, “You have to lose a little control to gain a lot of other advantages.”
These advantages can include deeper engagement with the consumer, resulting in a different type of customer loyalty. According to Szulc, it’s not enough to just try to “sell” anymore – you want your brand to “be coveted.” He cited campaigns such as Dove “Evolution;” South African apparel company Love Jozi’s “Luv Jozi;” and Levi’s own “Go Forth” as examples of multi-platform efforts that appealed to core consumer insights and made customers want to wear, purchase or be affiliated with the brand.
Now you may be reading this and wondering how this information applies to you, the content creator. But if you’re interested in working with advertisers, you need to know what a marketer believes makes a web series an attractive investment. The link between a product and the way an audience relates to it is story, and that’s where the writer comes in. Episodic web television offers a way to expand the story a brand can tell, and that’s why smart advertisers want to be involved with web series. To get their wallets to open, though, you have to know how to frame your project in such a way that it will meet their goals and justify them adding your show as a line item in their marketing budget.
During Ad: Tech’s “Brand Session: Town Hall” panel, there was much talk about how digital marketers can siphon money from traditional media budgets into online initiatives. The same strategies apply to content creators when approaching a brand. Even though you know that the *real* reason they should fund your show is because it’s great entertainment, if you can understand their needs and express it in language that helps them, you’re more likely to garner results. Just like pitching a show to a lower level exec, you want to leave the brand marketing manager or ad agency exec with something they can easily pitch up to their superiors.
According to the panelists, first, know how your project can reach a demographic that the online world often caters to in a more effective way than does traditional media. Current examples of this include The Guild (gamers) and The Bannen Way (18-34 year old males). Understanding the target audience for your content can inform your own targeting of brands to fund or advertise alongside your program. Most brands seek to reach a specific demographic and your online video series could add value to their current campaign. As creators, most of the time we don’t like to think about who our audience is – we just want to tell our stories. But in the Wild West of online video, in addition to rustlin’ up the best content possible, at times you must also don your business Stetson and get strategic about who will click ‘play.’
If possible, try to provide a few facts and figures to prove the Internet’s effectiveness. Those with deep pockets hire companies to do research studies; for independent content creators, it means looking into previous experiments with projects that may have similar audiences to your own. Google and Bing the hell out of successful web series and see what lessons you can apply to your show. Peruse advertising trades such as Advertising Age and MediaWeek, which sometimes feature case studies of online video efforts by brands. Take advantage of the free articles and newsletters published by research services such as eMarketer, which can help provide the stats you need to make your case.
In the course of doing your research, become aware of what a brand’s competition is doing in the space. Just like in Hollywood-land, sometimes the easiest way to get someone to greenlight a project is to point out that a competitor has already given the thumbs up to a similar endeavor.
Lastly, play to your core strength: storytelling. When it comes to online video brands are looking for something beyond the 30-second spot. Skilled storytelling over multiple episodes and the creation of compelling characters and situations make audiences want to tune in again and again. According to the brand professionals at Ad:Tech, this deeper engagement with consumers is exactly what brands are looking for.
Stay tuned for more lessons from the frontier...
New Media Project Manager
Writers Guild of America, West