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Case Study: The Script Hits the Fans

David B. Williams
Case Study: The Script Hits the Fans David B. Williams
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The industry is buzzing about consumers taking command of their media. Easy-to-use digital technologies have opened the floodgates on all kinds of content created by amateur Joes and Janes. Multitudes of blogs and podcasts showcase personal opinions and politics, while fan films and video mash-ups like the "Brokeback to the Future" movie trailer parody let individuals share unique visions of popular entertainment.


The big question is: How best to harness this consumer creativity and put it to work for your brand?


Showtime Networks wanted to boost its popular series, The L Word, for its upcoming third season, which premiered in January 2006. Specifically, the network sought to:



  1. Increase ratings and buzz

  2. Increase site traffic and "fan engagement"

  3. Recruit new marketing partners

The setup
The L Word is critically acclaimed and had always performed well, but second season ratings were down from season one, and the show had not achieved the level of consumer buzz and mindshare that the network believed was possible for an edgy, well-produced drama about a group of beautiful lesbians living the Hollywood high-life.


FanLib, an online technology and marketing company specializing in "people powered entertainment™," sought a high-profile entertainment property with which to pilot its unique online platform for "massively social storytelling." We at FanLib recognized that The L Word's most underutilized asset was its fans: Some entertainment properties have an uncanny ability to inspire the kind of allegiance that compelled William Shatner to famously implore a crowd of Trekkies in a comedy sketch to "get a life!" The L Word is one of those properties. Most notably, L Word fans seem to write an inordinate amount of fan fiction (or "fanfic"), which The American Heritage Dictionary defines as, "informal fiction written by fans as an extension of an admired work or series of works, especially a television show, often posted on the internet or published in fanzines."


The conflict
But, before any L Word event involving fan fiction could get off the ground, a major legal hurdle had to be overcome. As a matter of course, entertainment companies like Showtime have tended to keep fan fiction at a cool arms length, due to concerns about content ownership. If, for example, someone submitted a script about a talking tulip, and months later, a singing daisy appeared on The L Word, there is nothing to prevent the submitter from claiming Showtime stole the idea. FanLib lawyers worked painstakingly to develop an industrial strength online user agreement and set of rules in order to mitigate these concerns. After extensive revisions and consultations with Showtime's legal department, the concept was given the green light.


The "Fanisode"
Utilizing its patent-pending online technology, FanLib developed a unique program called "The L Word: A Fanisode", in which fans of the show were invited to collaboratively script an episode. The collaboration was guided by a staff writer for The L Word, who issued a new "scene mission" online each week, instructing fans to write three- to five-page scenes that included specific plot-points. Fans submitted scenes and voted for their favorites. At the end of each week, the most popular scene became part of the final fanisode script. When the event concluded, the seven winning scenes were polished by the staff writer and pieced together to create a complete screenplay that Showtime has an option to produce.


Unlike the proliferating short film and video contests online, the only know-how required to submit a scene to this contest was the use of a web browser, which allowed Showtime to attract a truly broad base of submitters. Since the results were determined by voting, each submitter also became a campaigner, actively reaching out to friends and family to vote for his or her scene. The FanLib platform includes a kind of campaign mail, allowing submitters to send out special scene invites. In essence, the event creates an army of crusading fans marching throughout the cyberverse to personally recruit the uninitiated masses into The L Word community.


The transformation of fans into active advocates was born out by such participant comments as, "We launched a get-out-the-vote campaign" involving "shamelessly self-promoting e-mails." And, "Even our parents watch the show now... they were just so excited that we had written something."


High ratings
The results of this campaign speak for themselves. The week the Fanisode competition launched, Yahoo!'s "Buzz Log" reported a 26 percent increase in L Word-related searches, and Showtime announced the show's ratings climbed 51 percent over the previous season's.


The event scored on the traffic/engagement front as well. With zero promotion outside of Showtime properties, the event attracted over 150,000 site visits, each averaging an impressive 19 page views.


For marketers too, the Fanisode proved to be a winner. In the past, the helter-skelter of much consumer-generated media has discouraged brand managers, who seek dependable environments in which to deposit their messages. With the involvement of the L Word staff writer, a prefabricated story blueprint, the scene missions and steadfast content moderation, the Fanisode overcame that obstacle by offering the best of both worlds: content that is audience-driven and viral while also being professionally controlled.


Top-tier brands such as Saks Fifth Avenue, LendingTree and The W Las Vegas signed on at CPM levels rarely seen for consumer-generated programs. In February, it was announced that The L Word would be returning for a fourth season. FanLib is in talks with the major broadcast networks about applying similar techniques to other properties.


David B. Williams is co-founder and SVP of product development, at FanLib. An established online pioneer, David employs expertise in both content and technology to produce FanLib's groundbreaking internet applications and cross-media programs. Williams is also instrumental in the planning and implementation of FanLib's overall strategies and business initiatives.


Best known as creator of the trailblazing WhirlGirl® and founder of the innovative studio that brought her to life, Williams has created a portfolio of world-class online properties and produced award-winning interactive solutions for numerous clients including Disney, USA Networks, Smithsonian Magazine, M&M/Mars, Lucent and IBM.

1. Hijacked mail servers


It's not uncommon to run software on our personal devices to keep malware, spyware, bots, etc., off our machines. Most of us do a good job of it, but some don't, increasing the chances of their device becoming part of a bot network. One commonly overlooked resource is your internal mail server


Mail servers typically do not see routine check-ups unless there is an issue with increased spam, slower processing speeds, or down email systems. This creates the ideal breeding ground for fraudulent activity. Recently, government agencies, colleges, and local small businesses were found to be infected with botnets. Fraudulent activity sees no boundaries and will attach itself to any size network with an exposed loophole.

2. Commandeering big brand URLs


Plugins are an attractive solution to help manage daily tasks succinctly and efficiently. However, they're also particularly attractive to fraudsters. Many big brands' efforts were thwarted with the introduction of plugins designed to swap the click URL on the returning search page.


These brands offer affiliate programs that anyone can sign up for. Their affiliate programs drive traffic to their specific affiliate URL, and the affiliate makes money off of purchases made from their unique URL. Amazon offers one such affiliate program that gives you a unique code to track users, and a commission payout as high as 10 percent.


How does it work? Say you do a search on Google and an Amazon listing shows up. These plugins can read the source code of the page, find the Amazon links, and alter them to contain the affiliate code. Now, a user won't see anything different, but if they click on that Amazon link, the plugin owner will get credit for that visitor instead of Amazon crediting their own marketing efforts. This version of fraud has the potential to line pockets with millions of dollars in revenue across several affiliate programs.


Big brands took note of failing search engine marketing efforts, noting larger than ever affiliate checks, leading to the discovery of these plugins. Today, they're easier to spot and aren't as prevalent, albeit they historically attract spammers and fraudsters.

3. You'll communicate with the dead


Catfish is a term popularized by an MTV series of the same name. It's a clever way to describe a person pretending to be someone they're not. Popular with online romances, catfishing has started to cross over into the ad fraud space. We recently saw this firsthand with a young lady named Rebecca Astley. She was looking to provide a Yahoo shopping feed to our business development team.


After a few Skype conversations, something seemed off. The spelling of Astley's last name on LinkedIn changed slightly, and she repeatedly asked the same questions. Sure enough, suspicions were confirmed with a reverse lookup of the image provided on the Skype and LinkedIn profiles. Astley was using an image of someone else: Allison Owens, a young lady who had passed away several years ago.



In order for publishers to communicate with ad networks and their advertisers, they have to prove their identity. Publishers create user profiles to talk to networks about account creation, support, and payments. It's typical of both legitimate and illegitimate publishers.


But if you're an unlawful publisher, that won't work. So how else do you connect with businesses? By hiding your reputation. Fake profiles aren't new, and identity theft is not uncommon. Be that as it may, many do not stoop as low as using images of the deceased.

4. Turn up the volume and it will click-click


Approximately 36 percent of all web traffic is considered to be bot-traffic. Ad fraud protection companies know to look for certain metrics, including mouse movements, and sneaky publishers know to make their fraud look natural.


Years ago, I discovered a publisher that had no conversion value, but had traffic results that showed normal human movement until it clicked -- literally. While navigating through their website I heard "click-click" whenever I clicked my mouse. I surely wasn't double clicking, so unless my ears were deceiving me, I was certain some foul play was involved. I prompted my team to help me take a closer look at the publisher's site, and to no surprise, the publisher was fraudulent.


Hidden under the mouse cursor was a 1x1 pixel iFrame invisible to the naked eye. Each time a user clicked on a webpage, it was intelligent enough also to click on links hidden under this iFrame. The hidden webpage would have zero conversion value since it couldn't be seen, but still had all the characteristics of natural user movement.


Conclusion


It's imperative to practice due diligence when advertising online. It's the internet, so be cognizant that not everyone's being honest or has honest intentions. The internet is a dark and scary place. If advertisers aren't careful, they'll find themselves constantly getting ripped off by these sneaky tricks.


Rich Kahn is founder and CEO of eZanga.com.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


"Suspicious Young Man" image via Shutterstock.

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