Consumer frustration over online ad clutter is at an all time high, but the majority of these consumers hold a strong preference for targeting advertising, a new study has found.
According to "The 2004 Survey on Internet Ads," conducted by the Ponemon Institute and co-sponsored by Chapell & Associates and Revenue Science, consumers want more relevant ads while maintaining their privacy.
The study reported that online consumers found pop-up ads to be the "most annoying" marketing technique. Telephone marketing followed second to pop-up ads in terms of intrusive advertising.
But that doesn't mean that all banner ads were seen as bad; in fact, the study found that 52 percent of those polled said they would be more likely to click on targeted ads than on others. Forty-five percent said they would be willing to provide additional personal information if they would receive more targeted ads to their individual interests; 55 percent favored targeted ads without the collecting of personal information.
"Consumers want more relevant ads, and many consumers are even willing to part with their personal information if that helps to enhance their online experience. But overall, consumers would prefer using a privacy enabling technology over other methods in order to increase relevance and reduce ad clutter," says Alan Chapell, president of Chapell and Associates.
The study also found that consumers are unwilling to pay for unwanted Web ads and unsolicited messages. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they are not willing to pay for Internet Service Provider services that block unwanted ads.
"Although online advertising continues to grow at a significant rate, marketers are still searching for an approach that is both effective and agreeable to consumers who are bombarded by advertising messages and concerned about privacy. The results of this study provide strong evidence that more relevant ads present an enormous opportunity for marketers to run more effective campaigns. Once consumer privacy issues are addressed in a meaningful way, online ads will fulfill their true potential," says Omar Tawakol, senior vice president of marketing at Revenue Science.
The study surveyed 1,074 adults in the United States in early August 2004.
Whether or not viewers take their engagement to the next level is up to them, of course. But it's important to give them the option. Beckett did just that with the accompanying video he and his team produced for Anthony Zuiker's new "digi-novel," "Level 26."
"You have to definitely structure your storytelling so you can hit all levels of audience," Beckett explains. "'Level 26' is a great example of that, where Anthony Zuiker, the author and "CSI" creator, wrote a book. If you want, you can just read the book; it totally lives on its own. But every 20 pages or so, there's a call to action that tells you to go to Level26.com, which we've built out to watch video content that's integrated and bridges you between chapters."
How is brand messaging achieved?
When it comes to conveying a brand's message via a web series, there are nearly as many methods as there are plotlines. However, product integration -- don't even think about calling it product placement -- is clearly number one.
"We never call it product placement," says Geci. "In fact, it isn't. But we've done a few different types of integration. Mainly, we try to work the product into the storyline or the show. That really worked well with the dramas." She gives an example of a character on a Bebo show who interned at a beauty salon, which provided the perfect vehicle for integrating sponsored hair products into the show.
A series may be devoted to, and created around, a particular sponsor, as in the case of Nestea's original web series, "Ctrl", in which a computer keyboard takes on magical powers after a bottle of Nestea is accidentally spilled on it. However, according to Small, some series are first created without any brands in mind and attract sponsors only after the show has achieved some success, as in the case of Break's original series "Tweet Boxx." In this series, snarky comedian Mike Polk pokes fun at inane celebrity tweets while drinking a non-descript cocktail. A prominently displayed bottle of booze sits in the background, its label conspicuously turned away from the camera. Several liquor brands have expressed interest in being Polk's drink of choice.
"What more typically happens here," Small elaborates, "is a client will have a campaign that they're working on, and they want us to build a series around that campaign." He cites Cheetos' Days that Don't Suck as an example. For this campaign, Small's team designed a calendar and corresponding video spots about fun, made-up holidays, such as Break Dance Day.
"One thing we've kind of changed in recent months is to really diversify," adds Geci. "Now we're doing more presenter-led, magazine-style shows. It gives us a lot more flexibility with integrations and the opportunity to work a little bit more closely with the advertiser to help them meet, more specifically, their advertising needs."
One example of a creative integration resulting from Bebo's show diversification is the sole sponsorship they scored from Samsung for their music magazine series, "BEAT." It's no accident that Samsung's music cell phone also goes by the same name. Another is the promotion of Zac Efron's movie, "Seventeen Again", on Bebo's magazine show, "B-Box." Film promotion was integrated over several episodes, which included both an Efron interview and a contest to win a signed hat from him.
Of course, the more conventional method of a pre-roll commercial spot is still utilized on web series. Based on Small's experience, however, its popularity seems to be is falling. "We find people are not as interested in that as actually being worked into the plot of the video itself."
No matter which method or methods are employed, there's one piece of advice all of our experts have for brands...
Keep things subtle
It can be a fine line between pure entertainment and a purely commercial message in branded entertainment. Walking that tightrope, without any noticeable wobbles, is critical to success. And subtlety, say our experts, is the best way to avoid these wobbles.
"I feel we keep going further down in the subtle route," says Geci, who, along with her team, has spent years figuring out, and respecting, just how much brand messaging users are willing to accept. "Now we're actually a little bit more sophisticated when it comes to subtlety."
One example of just how subtle things can get is the character Spencer Gillman on "lonelygirl15", who, as part of the storyline, worked as an R&D scientist at Neutrogena. "Fans actually called him 'Mr. Neutrogena,'" says Beckett. "They made avatars with Neutrogena logos and talked about how they'd bought a bunch of Neutrogena products."
Being too overt, argues Small, can backfire on a brand -- especially with his audience of young men. "I think people on the internet, especially guys, are very suspicious of anything where they think they're being sold something in an overt way," he elaborates. "We're mindful of that, we know our audience, so we work with the client to make sure we do it in a way that's subtle."
Along with subtlety, Small also stresses the importance of keeping things entertaining and creative: "As long as it remains entertaining, without being too much of a sellout type of thing, I think people will support it and be into it. We're always trying to find that balance."
It's precisely when that balance hasn't been struck that fan backlash can result, stresses Beckett. He cites "lame creative brand integration" as the source of any adverse fan reactions he's personally experienced. "As long as the creative of the product integration, or the banner campaign, or the interactive campaign -- whatever it is -- is authentic, transparent, and relevant to that community of people," he argues, "then not only do they not dislike it, they actively seek it out. Because it's just more content."
Challenges faced by brands
For brands, it's not just a matter of sponsoring a web series and then sitting back and watching product fly off the shelves. Even brands with lots of television experience may find working with a web series a bit more challenging. One reason, explains Beckett, is the faster pace of a web series.
"Typically, web series have faster turnaround times than TV, which is cool, because you can do interactive stuff and launch campaigns quickly, but brands are sometimes used to moving at a slower pace."
A brand also may not be prepared for the commitment required to fully engage with the community formed around a web series, something Geci believes is critical if a brand wishes to take full advantage of the series.
"Our big request to brands is that they really do the best they can and actually work with a community manager on their side," she explains. "Someone who represents their voice and their brand. We've told them time and time again, the more they engage, the more the users will come back."
Beckett warns that brands need to be prepared to step back and let things happen organically within a web-series community, something brands used to controlling every aspect of their messaging may find difficult.
"The biggest challenge brands face in working on a web series is just being comfortable with community-generated content coming out of it," he says. "Because, when you're working on a web series, obviously you're working with professionals. But people are going to remix your videos. People are going to talk about it in the comments. And you can't shut that down."
Small believes accepting that a more subtle messaging approach works better in branded entertainment is one of the biggest challenges brands face on a web series. Convincing them that less can be more is his. "That's the challenge. We're constantly going between the client, who we want to make happy, and the users, who we want to make happy."
Finally, a brand needs to have a clear objective as to how they're measuring a successful web series sponsorship. Is it purely the number of video views? Tapping into a new demographic? The resulting social activity? Changing the perception of the brand? Buzz created by the series?
Because, like any endeavor, if you don't know what you're aiming for, the chances of hitting it are slim. And in the highly targeted -- and potentially highly priced -- world of web series, it pays to take careful aim before pulling the trigger on a sponsoring one.
Sean P. Egen is a freelance writer.
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