ESPN Motion provides ESPN.com visitors with crystal-clear instant-on video right inside the ESPN.com front page, without streaming. Every time new ESPN Motion video is published out to the company's servers, an ESPN Motion component on a user's computer automatically goes out and fetches the newest video and stores it in a temporary location on his hard drive. This all happens in the background. When a new video has been downloaded and is ready to view, the user sees a blue 'E' icon in the right side of his Windows taskbar, which the viewer can click on, or just visit the front page of ESPN.com and the ESPN Motion video will start playing automatically.
The technology has caught the attention of the online advertising industry. Joseph Jaffe, for example, has always felt that simply taking TV and transplanting it on the Web would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He also was not convinced with the current level of quality in similar offerings. However, when he saw ESPN Motion in "motion", he began to reconsider his point of view and in order to learn more quizzed ESPN Motion's skipper, John Skipper, about - among other things - the proprietary technology, convergence, broadband, and buying and selling methodologies.
Be sure to check this week's for more about this new innovative format.
Jaffe: Take me through the thinking behind ESPN Motion... any unique consumer insight which led the way or was this rather a marketing driven initiative?
Skipper: This starts from being consumer driven. The thing that got me excited when I saw this was the fact I could come into my office the next day, go to ESPN.com and didn't have to launch a media player or wait for a buffer to see the game winning home run from the West Coast game the night before. Or if news broke during the day I could cut to ESPN.com and there would be leading analyst commentary waiting for me.
I didn't want this to be about technology - I wanted to be able to provide a better experience for consumers.
At ESPN.com, we're very fan-focused. We believe that if we serve the fan, we'll figure out a way to make money out of it and grow our business. The first way to do this was to provide the fan a better experience online - in this case, through video.
Then we had to figure out how to make money from it and pretty quickly we realized the way to do it was through convergence - so if you have television commercials, you can run this online as a way to sponsor or pay for fans to receive free video.
Jaffe: Let me ask you the question on everyone's mind right now: the technology. What technology did you choose or use?
Skipper: I saw this the first time at Walt Disney Imagineering. I had some pals there who were taking me through everything from new rides in the Park to new technologies. Somebody had on their machine a new prototype that wasn't live yet, but reflected the ability to click on a page and to see video which would start playing automatically. I asked how we could do that and they said they didn't really know as it was just a concept at that stage. I then went to our engineers and asked them if they could figure out how to do this.
So the technology is proprietary from ESPN.com and Walt Disney Internet Group Engineers
Jaffe: So you built this in house and basically in one fell swoop you've been able to achieve something that I don't think the industry has not been able to do yet.
Skipper: And I can't emphasize enough the great people on our side that made this possible.
Jaffe: So we're talking about great talent combined with the magic of Mickey Mouse. Seriously though, the insight I take away from this is that you started from scratch. It wasn't like taking an existing model and tweaking incrementally in an attempt to evolve it. This was starting off with a clean slate.
Skipper: It is a scientific concept: the a-ha phenomenon. This was the a-ha phenomenon.
Jaffe: Is there a revenue stream in terms of licensing this technology and exporting it throughout the Net, or are you thinking of keeping this in-house for just a wee while longer?
Skipper: I think we wanted to launch this and be leaders in this. This being said, I don't want to be the only person who has this for very long, because ultimately I think this will grow the business. I believe that at ESPN.com we have a strong enough position such that as the overall Internet grows, we will benefit.
Jaffe: It seems like you'll be taking an open position which can only be good for the industry.
Skipper: The person who led the project - Aaron LaBerge - developed this on open source and our sense is that we are interested in sharing this.
Jaffe: How important was it to be able to serve up a streamless offering? Were there any specific considerations which had to be met in order to arrive at your intended outcome?
Skipper: I think you've figured it out which is why you stressed it. We didn't think people were responding very well to the existing way of viewing video, which is why we wanted to improve and evolve it.
Jaffe: One thing I noticed is that the video plays immediately - it doesn't seem to be loading at all.
Skipper: Part of the beauty is that when you download the application, you're allowing us to put the video on your hard drive for a short period of time so that you don't have to wait for it: It's there waiting for you.
Jaffe: So it's loading every day in the background unbeknownst to the user, and that's how it plays automatically?
Jaffe: Let's talk about the plug-in for a moment. You've obviously taken a strong position on both broadband and convergence.
Skipper: I believe broadband fundamentally changes a user's experience. Something important to understand is that 80% of our connections on ESPN.com are on broadband already. So I think we're a little bit of a harbinger for what's going to happen in the market.
Jaffe: Can this product work without a broadband connection because of its ability to download politely in the background?
Skipper: It can work in 200K, but not really anything below.
Jaffe: Comment on your belief in the power to bring the best of television to the Web. ESPN Motion moves a lot closer from the mainstream "print on steroids" approach towards a more television-like model.
Skipper: You're right -- this sort of blows through the existing method through the use of video. Before, what we (the industry) were doing was a little bit clumsy in terms of putting one medium on top of the other by trying to take television quality and putting little bits of it on your computer.
My job is to experiment and push as far as possible on the computer screen, while my colleagues push as far as they can on HDTV, iTV or Enhanced TV, and we'll both learn from each other in the process.
Jaffe: Do you believe the two worlds will soon collide or do you think they will remain apart, yet still leverage the best of each?
Skipper: I think it's still pretty far out. However by 2015 (I'm deliberately picking a time far in the future), I don't think people are going to have two screens in their house.
My theory on this is that all things get adopted slower than you think they will at first, and then faster.
Jaffe: That's probably more along the lines of the Tipping Point.
Skipper: Exactly. There are people on the forefront of things who get all excited about how new things are going to revolutionize everything and then get disappointed when it doesn't happen immediately. So they move onto the next thing and then six years later, everybody's on-board.
This may sound silly, but it will answer your question. When we do our five-year plan, we're still not planning on convergence yet.
Jaffe: Not at all. It goes back to ESPNMotion being born organically, and not contrived or forced based on a plan.
Could you briefly outline the selling process? I noticed a banner at the top of the page. How are you going about selling these embedded 30-second commercials versus the standard online units? Which groups are involved in the process? How is the overall package being positioned and sold, and how is this different to the process before Motion was launched?
Skipper: The banners at this stage are still being sold by the ESPN.com team. Now as we go to Motion, we made the decision as a company to work together, certainly in the initial stages.
In the first six months, we're trying to sell category-exclusive sponsorships, so once we have an automotive client aboard; we won't sell to their competitors. And we'll restrict these categories to about eight to 10. The reason for that - and you'll appreciate this as a former media director - is that there's a lot of stuff we don't know about this. When we go to people, we recognize that they'll ask a lot of questions we don't really know how to answer. Some examples include initial downloads, number of daily plays, whether a 15-second or 30-second spot works best in terms of attentiveness.
So we're asking these advertisers to be our launch partners and we're guaranteeing them a certain number of impressions and other advantages down the line in return.
Right now, the banner at the top is being sold separately on a per-day basis with a guaranteed number of impressions. We have also guaranteed to advertisers that there will not be any competitive conflicts between banner and Motion.
Jaffe: I think you're going to find a lot of buyers who want to purchase both together.
Skipper: We can certainly do that and we're happy to talk to people about it. You're hitting on some important points...it's almost as if you've been sitting in on our meetings. I mentioned earlier that we're very focused on delivering value and experience to the consumer, but we are also very focused on delivering value to the advertiser.
We've tried to be at the forefront of creating big ad impressions and impact on the site; we've offered to every significant advertiser we've had to do research.
I think you're right that some people are going to want the whole thing synced up...but it does get expensive.
Jaffe: What about the buy side...are you going to the interactive, traditional buyers or both?
Skipper: It's both of course. But we're going predominantly to the television folks because they're the ones that represent the larger budgets.
Jaffe: And are you finding them receptive or are they passing you along to their interactive counterparts?
Skipper: No we're finding them to be receptive because after all, we're talking about television commercials.
Jaffe: And are you finding the way they're being priced, accounted for and measured are being easily accepted by this community, or do they tend to bring along an interactive representative to help facilitate and streamline the process?
Skipper: It certainly helps if there's an interactive buyer in the room. We're taking this to big name agencies, and because they already do a fair amount of business with ESPN, there's a certain amount of trust that already exists - trust that we're going to deliver value to them, even through there's a lot that both sides don't fully understand yet.
Jaffe: This is a crazy buyers' marketplace, so I wouldn't be surprised if a host of buyers try and bundle in ESPN Motion's 30-second spots as value add.
Skipper: We may get some of that, but since the beginning we've been really aggressive at resisting it.
Jaffe: You are after all one of the premier media brands, with integrated touchpoints from cable to online to the magazine...
A few final questions: How are you promoting Motion?
Skipper: We started on the Web only. Everyone already on ESPN.com represents our prime audience. We just introduced a new home page so we've been using this to communicate and promote ESPN Motion. We also want to make sure that this ramps up in a manageable and scaleable fashion. Once this happens, we'll turn to television.
Jaffe: What percentage of your visitors has already downloaded this?
Skipper: So far, we've had close to 1.5 million installs.
Jaffe: Any user feedback to share? From an intrusiveness perspective, I would imagine there shouldn't have been any negative response as this is a user-initiated process.
Skipper: For the most part, our broadband-based audience gets it and we've already received positive consensus about this being the future. Early on we got a fair number of e-mails about concerns regarding sound at work and bosses finding out. We just pointed out that they should hit their mute button as the process is user controlled.
Jaffe: So just to be clear, does ESPN Motion launch automatically upon arrival at ESPN.com or is this within the user's control?
Skipper: At this point it's in our control whether to launch with ESPN Motion or not.
Jaffe: My point of view is that we need to be cognizant about sound at work, especially amid a cubical environment. So the option of being able to initiate it from the get-go is going to be preferred long term...
Skipper: ...and it's something we're going to spend time thinking about
Jaffe: Final question. If Jaffe Juice were a drink, what would it be and why?
Skipper: Given the thoroughness of your interview, some serious carrot/wheatgrass juice - good for you!