Believe it or not, there are still some marketing briefs that use the phrase "make this video go viral." The fact that some brands believe this is possible is only a reminder that "virality" cannot be planned for. However, marketers can and should follow several best practices when building out branded web series. Take marquee examples like IKEA's "Easy to Assemble," Intel/Toshiba's "The Beauty Inside," Ford's "Escape my Life," Target's "Falling for You," and Lowe's regular home improvement and design videos. Many of these branded web series exemplify some of the industry best practices for making a branded web series, from smart distribution to strategic creative to clear business objectives.
A branded web series is a web show that a brand creates and is woven into, but not a show that a brand simply sponsors. Likewise, a series needs to include more than one video. With these criteria in mind, here are some of the steps that brands can take to ensure they have the greatest chance of success.
Creative execution and use of celebrities
First and foremost, a branded web series needs to provide real value for the consumer, said Catherine Davis, president of Aegis-owned Vizeum.
Sometimes that value can be entertainment, but it can also be utility or information. A lot of brands default to "entertaining" or "funny," and those are tough marks to measure up on, so brands need to play to their strengths, she said. A brand like Lowe's is smart to produce videos on home design, building, and handiwork because those fit the brand's ethos. Likewise, Louis Vuitton stayed on message with its "Art of Packing" web series, since that is tied to the brand's heritage.
Vizeum works with alcoholic beverage brand Pernod Ricard, and a spirits maker would do well to produce videos about recipes, how to make drinks, or nightlife, she recommended. "You really need to think about the brand and where it can be credible. That's part of the reason brands will partner with other people. It's the reason, for instance, that Sunglass Hut works with Rachel Bilson, who is a fashion and style icon."
But if you lean on a celebrity, make sure the celebrity fits the brand. A celebrity for the sake of attention won't benefit the brand as much. "Too many people use celebrities when they don't have a real relationship with the brand and then what gets remembered is the celebrity, not the brand," Davis said.
Also, customers won't simply watch a video because they like a brand. Web series need to provide value in and of themselves, says Molly Sugarman, VP and managing director of Treehouse, a creative and innovation launchpad within the media agency Horizon. For instance, Target's "Falling for You" works so well because of the utility of the series. "Target provided a really easy way to purchase things in the videos when you were watching them," she said.
Interestingly, oftentimes the brand can be the stumbling block in the creative process, she added. She encourages brands to put aside their own visions of the ideal user and embrace how customers actually use their products. "People want to see their reality reflected back. Be ready to confront and embrace the reality of your brand," Sugarman said. Along these lines, Breathe Right nasal strips did an integration with the web show "Burning Love" on Yahoo and admitted people look silly wearing the strips on their noses. "It's great and funny, and it sold the value of the Breathe Right strips," she said. "Loosen yourself up to the idea that the brand won't exclusively be the hero. Let your brand seem human."
Distribution, scheduling, and tracking
Don't underestimate the benefit of a content calendar, Vizeum's Davis said. "We look at a tightly integrated marketing strategy and develop content calendars and then pay close attention to what gets traction organically, so we can put more money behind those things getting traction."
Real-time tracking lets a brand or agency know where to invest paid media behind a video series, added Seraj Bharwani, chief analytics officer at video analytics and advertising company Visible Measures. "Not every episode is going to have as much engagement, so you need to have as much measurability as you can so the brand has confidence to achieve its goal."
Marketers have upped their spend on content development by more than 50 percent in the last seven years and are producing more content that can be shared, remarked Greg Kahn, chief business development officer with MXM, a customer engagement agency within Meredith, who has worked on branded content projects for clients including Kraft and Lowe's. Meanwhile, consumers are using multiple devices to view video, so brands need to consider whether the show will live on different devices, on mobile phones, or via mobile apps. According to Kahn, when planning a content calendar, brands should also look at how video will complement photographs, editorial, custom tweets, Pinterest, and other venues.
Amplify the message -- not only across all channels, but the best channels, he added. For Lowe's "Creative Ideas" content series, the brand produced content on topics such as how to paint a fence and how to build a butterfly garden. The brand supported that content with how-to videos promoted in print and linked through mobile and companion apps. That's a great example of how amplification spreads the message and also facilitates sales, Kahn said. "Enlist your consumers to interact and share their content, too."
Have a strong distribution plan, as IKEA did when it launched "Easy to Assemble" on YouTube, My Damn Channel, and Hulu. Then, encourage the audience to get involved. Know where the audience is and connect with it. Figure out which viewers have the behaviors that suggest they will share your videos, he said. "Where are the people who will tell their fan base to go out and engage with you?"
Set business goals
Brands should develop a content strategy for a branded web series over one, three, and five years. Next, they need to identify the key performance indicators for success. How will you measure the series? What metrics will you use? Can you identify your most profitable consumers and deliver the topics they are interested in?
The top line metric for a web series will be views, but a brand can have one million people watch and still not boost sales. More important considerations are whether viewers enjoy the videos, and whether the videos have a positive impact on the brand. Brands also need to employ social listening tools to hear what consumers are saying, sharing, and spreading, Sugarman said.
Likewise, accountability also matters. A brand needs to demonstrate how paid media helps to drive brand health and perception. Lowe's analyzes its web videos and makes decisions on what to tweak or not based on the performance, Kahn said. "Lowe's essentially built out a whole content ecosystem around creative ideas and had more than 300 pieces of content. They continue to build and enhance based on the data on what's performing."
In addition, a brand needs to carefully consider and understand its objective from the start. Don't do a branded web series just to do one. "Do one because you have to," said Bharwani at Visible Measures. "The single biggest challenge for marketers today is the ability to build audience around whatever content they decide to develop," he explained. A branded web series should be a means to reach a big goal that can't be achieved any other way. "Why did Intel and Toshiba bother to spend several million dollars to create 'The Beauty Inside?' Because they were crushed for a while, thinking Apple was the only cool device and people had forgotten that any other cool device existed. So when a brand has disappeared from the psyche they needed to do something fundamentally different to drive interest."
Daisy Whitney is a multimedia reporter.
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