Column: Branded -- The Video Vanguard
Alvin Toffler's seminal bestseller future shock argued that the accelerated rate of technological and social change would leave society disconnected and in a state of "shattering stress and disorientation" due to "information overload." Toffler's polemic was published in the early 1970s, which was about the time that the Department of Defense, using a Honeywell minicomputer, linked four universities' computer networks together - the modest set-up which ultimately evolved into the Internet. We don't know if Toffler was actually plugged into classified DOD skunkworks at the time, but it turns out his words were prescient. "Stress and disorientation" and "information overload" are apt descriptors for the current psychic state of advertisers.
Advertisers are paying lip service to new digital platforms, but underneath the thin veneer of bravado, there is fear, fear, fear. Brand managers and their agency partners have had to take crash courses in such exotica as MySpace, YouTube, podcasting, Bluetooth, et al. They're as giddy and confused as Amish teenagers during the ritual of rumspringa, in which the formerly sheltered youngsters experiment with sex and drugs before returning to their cloistered lives.
But for advertisers, there is no return. This is the new normal. We turned to our resident soothsayer, T.S. Kelly, to make sense of this new chaos and set marketers' minds at ease. T.S., the head of research for interactive agency Media Contacts, an MPG sibling, offers an upbeat yet cautionary view.
"The online environment offers marketers near-endless options for both creativity and distribution. In the near-term, we will see a lot of experimentation," says T.S. Nowhere is that pioneering spirit more evident than what advertisers have been trying on YouTube.
YouTube, the Internet's newest darling, has in many ways become the paragon of consumer empowerment as an extremely viral and sticky video repository for everything from teenage video diaries and awful karaoke contests to backyard wrestling matches and other arcana. "Though much of what is on YouTube is quite juvenile, one cannot escape the impact broadband has on the distribution of video and audio, not just to a specific demographic, but to all consumers," says T.S. YouTube has served as a potent platform for advertisers and creatives to test new ideas. In this context, because there is no media buy, if the creative isn't compelling, no one will see it.
But if it's imaginative and well-executed - as in the case of a recent effort from Diageo for its Smirnoff Ice brand - the ROI will be through the roof. In early August, Smirnoff's rap video parody, "Tea Partay," substituted gangbangers from the hood with polo-wearing New England preppies representing their allegiance to Cape Cod in rhyme. It was reported by The Wall Street Journal that in the first two weeks the piece was online, it was viewed more than half a million times on the site and also spread quickly via e-mail.
T.S. warns brands that this freewheeling approach is not without its risks. "Once content, ads or otherwise, are online, it easily spreads. Marketers have to be ready to relinquish some level of control to the consumer. In some cases they can even expect consumer versions of their own ads. Parody, even online, is covered under the First Amendment."
For those more cautious advertisers afraid of the uncensored, Wild West nature of YouTube and other newbie sites, traditional media outlets offer a greater comfort zone. "Brands can place ads in pod-like segments within digital content offered by ABC, AOL, and others that will be seen in similar ways as traditional TV programs," says T.S., referring to networks' new emphasis on creating digital offerings as well as their traditional on-air programming.
What will it take to get more advertisers to take the online video plunge? According to T.S., it comes down to accountability. "MySpace largely measures performance by the number of friends a campaign delivers. How does this 'friends' metric translate into actual sales? Clients will expect the same level of precision metrics from these new marketing methods as they receive in typical online campaigns. Measurement in these areas is still in its infancy."
Hank Kim and Richard Linnett are directors at MPG Entertainment. (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com)