The videos are hilarious, but are they safe for advertising?
Panelists said the risks are worth the reach. And they said the space is becoming friendlier to advertisers because the sort of shock video that defined online humor--low-quality, user-generated clips--is being supplanted by much higher-quality, original content, with less shock value.
"Shock video isn't as interesting as it was," said Josh Abramson, co-founder of CollegeHumor.com. "Now we are required to tell a story--to do more traditional forms of video content." He said that his site, which started as a pure user-generated content purveyor, now creates its own content and directs advertisers to those.
"We sell ads on safe user-generated content, but that is becoming less and less interesting to clients," he said. "We are producing content now specifically for advertisers." He said CollegeHumor did a show for Mountain Dew, involving a minute-long daily interview format. "It was very in line with what their brand messaging was."
Sean Mills--president of The Onion, which turned 20 this year and last year started the online Onion News Network--said that while the Onion does not create content with advertisers in mind, "everything is appropriate for advertisers."
Abramson said viral distribution is the key to broad audience exposure. "We call successful videos 'candy corn': it will have high rankings on dig.com and people put it on their blogs, which is how our videos become viral. If a video is a hit, we get five million people viewing virally," he said.
Lou Wallach, SVP of original programming at Comedy Central, said the channel's Web content has become just as important as TV. "Certain clients know that because of the stuff we are doing, to certain audiences it might seem shocking--but to the core demo, it isn't. They know those eyeballs will go to that space, and the right advertisers want to be part of it. Whether they are energy drinks, Axe body spray, or video games, they want to reach that concentrated audience."
Mills said advertisers buy online Onion media "because they like the brand and content; we don't need to show them scripts or video beforehand. People out to reach young males, young audiences, can't take a conservative approach."
Abramson said the advertising window for comedy video is short, "really about the first two weeks."
Wallach said the litmus test is the integrity of the content. "It has to work for the audience; our audience will turn on a dime if advertising is just shoved in there."
The panelists also said the advertisers are generally willing to take a risk on viral distribution, putting their ads in unpredictable places. "With Mountain Dew, they were very big on us sending content everywhere," said Abramson. "In the case where we product-sponsored content and the content finds its way to a third-party site, we don't run ads on it unless the advertiser wants us to."
Comedy Central's Wallach said the channel has its own branded online widget-style player, so video is "packaged in a way that's very clearly branded Comedy Central." He said the obvious branding differentiates the video space from whatever page it finds itself in. "The credibility lies in the Comedy Central branding on the player," he said.
Said Mills: "Yes, you can control it if an advertiser wants you to, but my experience is they want it to go viral and be a hit."