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So you wanna have a web series

Sean P. Egen
So you wanna have a web series Sean P. Egen
Don't call it TV on the internet; TV for the internet is more accurate. Better yet, drop the TV part altogether and call it what it truly is -- branded entertainment -- because it's going places television has yet to venture. Sure, you've seen sitcom characters drink their favorite brand of cola in a scene, or reality-television contestants compete to win a new car the host just talked up. But have you seen a network series in which a consumer product plays a major role in the storyline? How about one built entirely around a product?

To see either of those, you'll have to turn off your TV and get online.  

They're called branded web series, and they're becoming more polished, more sophisticated, more engaging, and nearly on par with network television when it comes to production value and star power. Like any series, they're by no means a sure thing (Bud.tv, Anheuser-Busch's now-defunct online channel devoted to AB-branded content, immediately comes to mind). Yet, every day more and more brands are taking the plunge to sponsor a web series. 

We asked three leading players in the arena of creating, and marketing, branded entertainment for their thoughts on making a successful web series. And what's in it -- both the benefits and challenges -- for a brand thinking of sponsoring one.  

Why spend precious ad dollars on a web series?   
"One of the things the internet is revolutionizing is this idea of branded entertainment," says Jonathan Small, VP/editorial director of The Creative Lab for Break Media, which owns eight entertainment websites, most notably their flagship entertainment site for 18- to 34-year-old males, Break.com. "On television, you see 15- or 30-second commercials. On the internet, you see web series that are entertaining but, at the same time, pushing a brand's message. It's a more subtle approach to advertising."
"While the audiences might not be as big as network TV, the level of engagement and the targeting you can do is much better," says Miles Beckett, co-founder and CEO of the social entertainment firm EQAL, which has produced some of the web's most successful series, including "lonelygirl15", "KateModern", and "Harper's Globe", a companion series to CBS' "Harper's Island".

Targeting is currently aimed primarily at younger viewers, and for good reason. This younger demographic has more free time to spend online, and they're typically more willing to engage in the social-media components built around most web series, which include commenting on episodes, playing games, participating in polls and quizzes, making plot suggestions, and remixing videos, to name but a few. 
"What we've seen with the shows that we've produced, and the brands that we've worked with," adds Beckett, "is that, because of the two-way communication of the internet, there is so much engagement and so much more mindshare the brand gets from the audience members."

Of course, a viewer isn't obligated to take his or her engagement to the next level. But if the web series is doing its job in engaging the viewer, participation is, hopefully, a natural byproduct. 

Is deep engagement essential?
"We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't really provide the deep level of engagement," says Karla Geci, director of marketing for Bebo, one of the world's largest social media networks and a leader in branded online entertainment. "The user on Bebo is not there for the advertising; they're there for the content. But they also really like to engage with the brands that are important to them. That's why it works."

Beckett, who credits the social aspect of a web series as the main reason "lonelygirl15" became such a hit, believes that, without the engagement and interactivity from the viewers, "It's just TV on the internet." Not that he's against that; he confesses to watching most of his television on the web. "But it's definitely not an interactive show or, as we call them, a 'social show,'" he adds. "That's what makes a web series special and different." 

But are brands taking full advantage of this engagement by talking back?

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"Definitely," says Geci, who likens the back-and-forth between brands and consumers to having a free research panel at their disposal. Beckett and his group frequently collect comments and videos made by fans and show them to sponsors. "It definitely helped prove the ROI and showed that this was more than just a CPM-based buy," he adds.

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.


"For us, the big focus is on a premium sponsorship package ad buy, where the brand is immersed in that community during the period of time that they're buying," says Beckett. "For "Get Cookin' with Paula Deen," which we're working on right now, we're talking to brands about package opportunities that include both product integration in the videos and banner inventory on PaulaDeen.com, plus the potential to do an ad buy on YouTube and get video overlays and things like that."  

"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.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet. 


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