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Alternate Reality Gaming 101 (Page 2)

Joyce Schwarz
Alternate Reality Gaming 101 (Page 2) Joyce Schwarz

Being "Monkish"

One of the most popular ARB-type campaigns still running is a new multi-level interactive game designed to generate buzz and loyal viewers for "Monk" created by Glow Interactive, New York for USA Network. The flash-packed game draws viewers into an office scenario and asks them to rearrange the paperclips on Monk's desk. The game, an online store selling "Monk" items, blogs, quizzes, interviews and video clips are all adding to the stickiness of the site which in just over two weeks, January 1-18 pulled in 1.5 million visits and 20 million page views and an astounding one million video streams. The Monk ARB is so popular that other brand advertisers want to be involved. Ads on TV show sites are becoming another revenue source for the networks.

Mega-Reality: Monopoly: Sometimes the scale of the Alternate Reality Branding campaign is so big it deserves to be called Mega-Reality since it is larger than life and lets players experience their favorite online video or board games in the real world. Last summer, Tribal DDB and DDB London pitted groups of five players against each other by giving them each a Monopoly fortune of 15 million pounds (fake) to invest in (real) London properties while linking their moves on the board to the locale of 18 GPS transmitter-equipped cabs (real). To add a fresh spin, Chance and Community Chest bonuses were sent via SMS (text messaging.) The ARG-type event made international headlines to celebrate Monopoly's 70th anniversary. Another example of Mega-Reality ARB style promos was the unexpected unveiling of an airplane cabin in New York's Soho district. Turned out it housed a cocktail lounge designed by Neverstop promoting the spirit and warmth of Song Airlines during the holiday season; it attracted more than 60,000 visitors in six weeks.

Alternative Reality: Nothing like a venture into an alternative universe to break up the workday. Last Call Poker, created by 42 Entertainment, turned out to be a tie-in with Activision's Gun console and PC game, but it functions like a high-end poker site. Quirky real-world poker tournaments in graveyards, of all places, across the United States attracted avid fans who got radio transmissions propelling them to the next play.

Collective reality: The Halo 2 "I Love Bees" and Sharp Electronic's ARG titled "The Legend of the Sacred Urns" all require a collective virtual community to solve the quest, or in Sharp's case, the hunt for a rare artifact. Vital clues were embedded in oddball TV commercials and visitors to www.moretosee.com could not only view the ads again, but also discover pointers to new clues. In an interesting twist, all of the game play took place on internet bulletin boards where players swapped and analyzed clues. Who wins the grand prize (in this case a Sharp Entertainment Center) becomes almost secondary to the group camaraderie.

Faux-reality: One of the toughest versions of Alternate Reality Branding to pull off is a version called Faux-Reality where false or misleading info appears real. The challenge in this arena is to walk the line between stealth marketing and punking the players. ARG enthusiasts are a sophisticated bunch that doesn't want to be punk'd. One brand that pulled off the ultimate faux-reality campaign is Audi with The Art of The Heist campaign, first unleashed at a live event in New York City as a game and then fueled by a torrent of interactive missions. At the same time the game was taking off, a shadow side popped up as bloggers and TV viewers started seeing notices searching for the person who stole a brand new Audi A3 from the New York Auto Show. A spy mission at a major music festival and a helicopter special effects finale in Santa Monica added real life drama to the faux heist. 

If you're flying Jet Blue in April, you can turn on your seat's Direct TV screen and participate in what may be the first made for in-plane only reality show called "Share the Love" from American Express. A vote for one of the two families competing in a cross-country race to win a year's free travel will not only help pick the winner, but will also prompt a contribution to charities such as the Boys & Girls Club. Online at www.jetblue.com, consumers can also catch a peek at the videos and cast their ballot. The ARG-style race is designed by multiple agencies and an integrated team led by Nancy Smith, VP, global media and sponsorship marketing, American Express. Out of home and airport creative billboards, banners, posters and even luggage tags encourage you to "Share the Love."

Steeper Rabbit Holes

In the next year, watch for Alternate Reality Gaming and ARB to kick it up a notch to a new level of group player involvement as Hollywood heats up the arena. Making headlines in the entertainment trades is news that MMORGs (massively multiplayer online games) are in development by such major names as producer James Cameron, actor Vin Diesel and Imagine Entertainment. What makes these announcements so different is that the games are designed by Hollywood types to create virtual communities of fans for upcoming films or television shows. Step carefully-- the new Hollywood-style rabbit holes may be deeper than any we've gone down before.      

Joyce Schwarz is an author, analyst and consultant on emerging entertainment. Her firm JCOM is located in Marina Del Rey, CA and specializes in launching next-stage media companies and products. She blogs at www.hollywood2020.blogs.com. Schwarz has organized such ARB-style events as turning New York into Hawaii for a week and the "Day in the Life of Paris" quest. She also consulted on the launch of Hasbro online.

Back to Page 1

Not so fast
But not everyone agrees with Barnett's assessment, and numbers for video snacking seem hard to come by.

YouTube, the 800-pound gorilla of video sites, boldly declares that all times are primetime, saying it doesn't have publicly available data on when viewers are watching content. A YouTube spokesperson added that the site's audience is a global one and the concept of primetime is both dated and irrelevant.

According to comScore, one of the few firms able to give specific data on video consumption by time of day, there is a midday peak, with 37 million unique viewers looking at web video in the midday block. By comparison, comScore reports that the web's total video audience is about 19 million in the morning, with about the same number of viewers in the evening.

Cory Kronengold, director of marketing and communications for Tremor Media, a firm that specializes in placing ads in videos, confirms that there is a midday spike. But, he says, midday viewing is hard to quantify because of the geographic spread, and the spike occurs across all ad formats.

"I’d hardly call it the 'new primetime' because it's video snacking -- people watching news clips, the latest webisode or viral hit," Kronengold says. "They are blasting through more web pages and getting more ads, but not necessarily mimicking the primetime 'lean back' experience. Maybe its primetime for webisodes."

Pavlov's dog?
And then there's Break.com, the male-focused video portal-turned ad network. Break.com CEO Keith Richman says his site has actually seen a midday spike in the past, but what's happening now is actually a "flattening out of the day."

"We're seeing more people at all times," Richman says. "The peaks are much less than they used to be. From a marketer's standpoint, you want a specific person and you want to know the time that you're going to reach them. What I think [is happening with online video] is that marketers have a longer period of time over the day, rather than saying Thursday night primetime."

According to Richman, Break.com updates four times per day (10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 10 p.m.), but he says that's got more to do with users developing viewing habits than publishers and marketers creating an artificial primetime.

So, perhaps it's the viewers that want primetime back. Or, if not primetime, something akin to a "regular time" when they can incorporate online video into their everyday habits. While that's good news for the medium -- the idea that web video is routine as opposed to a novelty -- it's hardly a sea change away from the on-demand world and back to a more temporal consumption pattern.

But there's another school of thought that says it's not the users who want their primetime back. Instead, it's reach-challenged marketers who are longing for the days of a primetime audience.

Wishful thinking?  
"Audiences are enjoying their favorite programs on their own schedule and it's not just during their lunch break," reports Greg Mand, VP of sales for PodShow, when asked if he's seeing dayparting among his audience.

While Mand says PodShow's users are eagerly embracing the on-demand universe, a handful of advertisers have requested time-specific slots. But according to Mand, that kind of thinking won't keep pace with the fast-evolving market.

"Though a ton of folks consume online content at the office, I think we'll see usage spread out more evenly across the day and night as the market develops," Mand explains.

If dayparting for video is really just wishful thinking on the part of marketers, then the problem may go beyond simple numbers.

Think of it this way: Marketers who formerly used TV to obtain reach in the past probably didn't sweat reach as much as their digital counterparts do today. If you wanted 10 million viewers in the 1980s, Nielsen could tell you which network show had that number with the demographics you were looking for. The data may not have been exact, but for marketers, it certainly was easy to come by.

But there's no such thing as a one-stop-shop for content today. What's out there is a universe of publishers and ad networks, regular viewers and irregular viewers. And if that's the case, the new primetime is really just a quest to find "M*A*S*H" or "Seinfeld" where it does not -- and likely never will -- exist.

So what does all this mean for marketers?
It's not fair to call the idea of a new digital primetime a myth. For one thing, there are some numbers (though better ones are required) that point to a midday traffic spike, at least at some sites.

Anecdotally, the NBC researcher who told The New York Times that office workers are consuming a lot of video at lunch, seems to be right on the money. Scanning my office and talking to friends and family, I've found that a lot of people are watching internet video in the middle of the day.

But it's hard to say that there's any single thing that people are watching. In fact, it's hard to say that there's any single thing people are watching at anytime of the day. And so it stands to reason that midday is just as fragmented as all other times.

So what's a marketer to do? One piece of advice may be as simple as get over it. Like the 30-second spot, the idea of primetime may also be a digital casualty.

According to Keith Richman, primetime might exist for a core audience, but the bulk of the viewers have become untethered. That assessment seems to jibe with Rob Barnett, the CEO of MyDamnChannel, who insists audiences are embracing a new primetime on the web. According to Barnett, MyDamnChannel uses its regular publishing schedule to build an audience that is loyal to both its site and specific shows. Where the two part ways, it seems, is the degree to which time-specific publication can develop and drive an audience.

But marketers may need to keep their eye on a somewhat different -- and more complex -- ball. Marketers will have to ask whether they're buying an audience, as defined by content alone, or if they're buying eyeballs, which means creating a hybrid of content, time and targeting to obtain reach.

Online video has taken flack for not being able to deliver reach. But the truth may be that reach is already here. It's just up to the marketers to find it now.

Michael Estrin is associate editor at iMediaConnection. Read full bio.

The demand-side platforms (DSPs)
Demand-side platforms have risen to help advertisers manage all of their exchange campaigns through a single interface. These DSPs utilize the ad exchange's data connection via application program interfaces (APIs), which provide the same functionality as working on the exchanges' own systems. Some agencies and holding companies have built their own DSPs, and many third-party DSP providers have popped up, such as Turn, Invite Media (Google), [x+1], MediaMath, DataXu, and Triggit.

DSPs provide more features than just letting advertisers manage all of their buys in one spot. By aggregating the entire exchange buying process into one system, advertisers can utilize the high-powered algorithms of their DSPs to optimize their bids. These algorithms can be tuned to target a specific cost-per-click, cost-per-sale, return on investment (ROI), or other business goals. They can also provide integration with various third-party data providers to allow for simple access to purchasing inventory. Another recognized benefit to running everything through a DSP is that advertisers can enable universal frequency capping across all of the exchanges they work with.

Because an ad needs to load quickly, DSPs have service level agreements (SLAs) that set how long they have to return a bid for the impression. The standard time frame for a DSP to return a bid request to an exchange is around 50 milliseconds, or one-twentieth of a second!

The bid
Bids are generally handled at the cost-per-thousand (CPM) level, and advertisers can choose to vary these bids based on the value of the users each placement is targeting. A common targeting choice is contextual, as exchanges classify their inventory by categories (i.e., sports, entertainment, news, finance, etc.) and sub-categories (entertainment - movie; entertainment - music; etc.). It's probably safe to say that an advertiser involved in promoting a new film would be willing to pay more for to users on movies sites than on financial ones.

Another common targeting option is geography -- by country, region, state, DMA, etc. And because you can mix targeting directives in a placement, you could, for example choose to create a campaign that just targets users on automotive-related sites in California and bid accordingly for that traffic.

It's important to note that advertisers are not manually bidding on every impression in real-time -- not even Superman could keep up with 150,000 ads per second. Rather, advertisers choose targeting settings and a maximum bid for what they would pay for an impression that meets those parameters. As with paid search, analysts can continuously optimize their choices by changing bids and targeting settings to ensure the best possible ROI.

The data layer
The piece of the puzzle that seems to most accentuate the value of exchange buying is the various data that can be leveraged in order to target users. By tagging user browsers via anonymous cookies, advertisers can retarget to their website's visitors on publisher sites by bidding more for those users than their competitors; reaching shopping cart abandoners with multiple ad impressions in the first few days after leaving the site has become a smart way to utilize this feature, for example.

Third-party data providers tag users and then sell advertisers access to identify those users later on an exchange. These companies (such as BlueKai, eXelate, and Experian) can provide user segments such as male or female, age bracket, income bracket, etc. How do they do this? There are various ways. There are data providers that tag users online who are registering product warrantees; they can provide exchange visibility to audiences based on the types of products they own. Other data providers make deals with travel aggregators so that advertisers can (anonymously) target users who have searched for Caribbean vacation deals or European hotels. Some data providers work with social networks that have registration data on millions of users and can help find audiences with specific niche interests.

The most valuable data seems to be that which can help identify in-market users. For example, a data provider signs a deal with a top-tier automotive review site to allow it to tag its users on key portions of the site. Days later, a major car manufacturer is able to buy impressions on other sites to target those same users who were looking for specific car-related information.

Ultimately, advertisers are going to pay more to reach the most desirable audiences to their business. Data empowers the advertiser to be able to better judge the value of each impression as it is passed to them.

The verification systems
If a bid is submitted and won by an advertiser, the ad can be served at this point. However, to provide a level of protection, verification technology is sometimes inserted into the value chain. Because the focus on the exchanges is audience buying and the human element has been removed, there has been a fear in the advertiser community that the ads may not be served in the best way for their brands -- e.g., being placed next to overtly sexual or violent content. Being served next to a competitor on the same page is also something that could potentially happen. Verification systems try to discern the context of the page before serving the ad, and it will block the ad if it determines the page doesn't fit the advertiser's specified settings.

Another function of verification systems is to validate the buy itself. As the impression comes up for bid and is won by the advertiser, the system determines if it really matches the target that advertiser was bidding on. Is the ad being served in the right geographic area? Is it ensuring compliance to the industry-specific guidelines and not breaking any rules (for example, pharmaceutical companies have strict editorial needs)? Once again, if the verification technology detects anything outside of the ordinary, it will block the ad from being served. Also in this category are contextual providers such as Peer39 and Proximic, which leverage semantic filters in real time to protect advertisers from buying the wrong impressions.

Verification technologies can differ in methodology and implementation, but, basically, if the impression passes the verification system's filters at this point, the ad is ready to be loaded into the blank ad box on the publisher site. 

The third-party ad server
On some occasions, advertisers can load ads directly into the exchanges or allow their DSPs to serve them. However, most major advertisers load the exchanges (and DSPs) with creative "tags," which are ad requests that are filled by their third-party ad servers. 

Third-party ad servers solve the same problem with serving ads as a DSP does with buying from exchanges. Instead of having to manage all of their display buys for each individual publisher (or exchange), the third-party ad server allows for everything to be managed in one place -- reporting, tracking, creative management -- one platform for the agency or advertiser teams to worry about.

So, the exchange sends the advertiser's creative tag (either directly or from a DSP) to the publisher's first-party ad server. The publisher's server loads the creative tag into the blank ad box. The creative tag "calls" to the advertiser's third-party ad server to then serve the ad. The third-party ad server will serve whichever creative is deemed appropriate for the situation. For example, if it detects that the end user is in Texas, there may be a specified ad to be served to that user. Or, if the third-party ad server detects that the user visited the company's website and checked out a certain product page, it may be directed to serve an ad related to that product.

Abracadabra! The ad is served. Remember, this entire process has to happen virtually instantaneously to ensure a quality experience for a website user. From the moment the page begins to load, to the publisher's tools farming it off to an exchange, to the exchanges receiving bids from their own users and their partner DSPs, to being filtered through the verification systems, and finally returned by an advertiser's third-party ad server-- it all takes place in around less than half of a second.

It's almost impossible to imagine that technology buying, such as the exchange system, will completely replace human interaction. Frankly, not all inventory can be sold this way. However, with the promise of lower costs from efficiencies, fewer wasted impressions through smart targeting, scalable reach, and controlled frequency, it seems very likely that these technologies will evolve into even more impactful tools. Competency in these platforms has already become a priority for leading advertisers, and new ideas for innovation are springing up every day. It's reasonable to assume that we have only scratched the surface on the capabilities of these systems and that they will be even more powerful and ubiquitous in a very short time.

Josh Dreller is VP of media technology and analytics at Fuor Digital.

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