At the moment of this writing, the most discussed video on YouTube is an episode of Japanese Anime with English subtitles; the most-viewed is a 16-second clip of a giant mining dump truck running over a comparatively tiny full-sized pickup and the most favorite video is something called "Funny Animated Gifs Part 90." No fewer than 12 cover stories at the leading trade publications are about the perils of marketing through Facebook and/or MySpace and/or social media.
For advertisers trying to adapt to today's media and reach target audiences where they live, the landscape can be at best a confusing maze and at worst a dangerous minefield. Keeping up with evolving consumer media habits was fine when it meant migrating from "ABC's Wide World of Sports" into specific programming for those engrossed in either the Nextel Cup, the Stanley Cup or the America's Cup. Media fragmentation is an acceptable, indeed a welcome challenge for marketers if it asks them to choose between mass reach or smaller but more loyal affinity groups.
But much of what is immensely popular today goes beyond the fragmentation of special interest programming and extends into truly niche content. This can mean it is edgier, lower budget, user generated or just off-beat -- perhaps best categorized as "misfit content." Online, it often starts in a narrow niche and then through the combined power of online distribution, social networking, blogs, email and pick-up by more traditional media, can swell to rival or surpass mass reach.
What is misfit content?
What we call misfit content is really any niche content produced and/or distributed outside of mainstream channels and difficult to fit into conventional content categories or even formats. It is often user generated, and when it is not, it is often inspired by user-generated media. It is rife with opinion, attitude and often controversy (which in some cases is all the same thing). And it vigilantly defends candor over accepted standards of appropriateness.
Misfit content is not just remnant media, even though many of the ads currently displayed alongside it are the same ones run in remnant space. It is not unpopular content only made useful through aggregating with reams of other unpopular content. In contrast, it is often incredibly popular -- with consumers if not with advertisers, and its popularity is growing; it is transcending online media.
It is the famous examples we all know: The Star Wars Kid, LonelyGirl15 and JibJab parodies. But it is also smaller diversions, distractions, themes and memes online that start out being distributed in smaller circles but often come to enjoy sizable audiences and consumer attention. Way more than just video, these include games, screensavers, wallpapers and widgets.
Marketing in the land of misfit content
So far, advertisers' response to misfit content has been cool, as most are reluctant to risk tarnishing their brands alongside media that they perceive as controversial. But like the meat inside a tough and spiky crab leg, the advertising ROI within and around misfit content may also be rich and rewarding, for clever marketers who take the right approach.
How can advertisers fit into misfit content?
Like most of the successful ad formats developed over the past few years, old rules also do not apply within misfit content. Here are a few tactics to adopt when approaching misfit content:
1. Match creative to the content's attitude. Advertising is traditionally disruptive, with creative strategies often designed to allow an ad to stand out from the content that surrounds it. But with misfit content, ads need greater continuity within the content -- if not contextually, then with a complementing attitude. The brand cannot come off as the nerd at the cool kids' party, rather it needs to bring something to the table in the form of creative that at the very least shows that the brand understands the audience and is comfortable in the environment.
More and more brands are becoming comfortable, and not surprisingly at various levels. Coors demonstrated its comfort level at Break.com through its own Keystone Light "Unsmooth" channel. The campaign was accompanied by ads running across the site and the web promoting the branded channel. Another example is Honda's recent interstitial campaign for the Honda Element that appeared between the click and playing of videos at Heavy.com. The year 2007 was no doubt a testing ground for marketers' comfort with misfit content; there is much more ahead in 2008.
2. Be prepared to cede control. Many of the most promising ad formats and platforms -- from user-generated ads to behavioral targeting to widgets -- require the brand to relinquish some of its positioning rigor. I'm not suggesting that feeding your brand to the wolves is the cost of doing business today, but carrying a little of what the wolves like to eat may help you navigate the forest more successfully. Many brands have successfully jumped into the fray with some of their own misfit content -- Keystone as an example. Your own games, videos, screensavers -- even your ads -- can draw an audience online, help build your brand or drive consumer interaction if you agree to cede control and let them find their audiences.
3. Get the payoff without the rub-off. Advertisers should look for creative ways of following audiences to and around some of this popular but largely uncluttered content. One-step-removed strategies such as sponsoring categories or channels within popular sites where misfit content is aggregated allow brands to test access to the audiences while still keeping them at arms' length. And advanced forms of targeting are also emerging that enable advertisers to deliver ads not while the misfit content is being consumed, but at a more contextually relevant moment.
The idea here is not to instigate a race to advertiser outrageousness and spark some industry-wide deterioration of standards and decorum. But misfit content is more than a passing fad, and like any new media, it offers a competitive advantage to brands quick to gain a foothold.
Rip Warendorf is senior vice president of sales at Zango. Read full bio.