Since the rise of online video in early 2006, networks have moved aggressively to launch online series comprised of a collection of mini-Webisodes. Some play off existing shows, such as NBC's "The Office," while others are fully original.
But the pursuit of a viral smash has been largely futile, casting doubt on whether the costs justify the means, and raising questions about why YouTube-style pass-alongs have usually failed to materialize.
NBC Universal's digital studio eliminates part of the issue by producing NBC.com series funded by advertisers up front, which use them as branded-entertainment vehicles. While not a breakout hit, NBC has broken some ground by debuting a second season of one digital-only series.
"In Gayle We Trust," the marketing propeller for American Family Insurance, returns after 11 episodes last fall; they ran about two minutes each. The comedic shorts feature an AFI agent interacting with various townspeople and look to convey that, well, like a good neighbor, AFI is there.
Played by Elisa Donovan ("Clueless"), "Gayle" is a town "sounding board, guru and trusted advisor." She's also a good-humored saleswoman.
In one mini-sode, a plumber is called to her office, with AFI's blissfully unflashy logo visible. He asks if she sells identity-theft insurance. After some humorous, persistent flirting by Mr. Fix It, "Gayle" hastily hands him a brochure.
The debut episode of season two runs four minutes and has the oft-bemused agent visiting a salon. But the hair cutter is an accident waiting to happen, so "Gayle" talks up small-business insurance: "In addition to protecting your business, as an American Family policyholder, you would have access to tools and materials to make your workplace safer ... also, American Family is committed to helping your business grow."
An AFI representative said the mini-sodes garnered 3.7 million views for season one, while breaking some NBC.com records for the number of viewers who watched episodes in full. Research also showed that AFI received a 24% bump in purchase intent.
Cameron Death, who heads NBCU's digital studio, stated that a second season "marks a vital next step in the development of original digital content as an integral part of the media mix."
AFI agency Mindshare's entertainment arm helped produce the series. Based in Madison, Wisc., AFI is privately held and among the Fortune 500.