Current TV Puts Insights to Use in Brand Extension

SAN FRANCISCO After two years of televising viewer-generated videos and consumer-crafted ads for brands like Toyota and Sony, Current TV is using its insights into consumer content favored by young adults to expand its Web presence and increase its marketing efforts. The company’s experience with its audience also sheds light on the challenges of any marketer wooing well-educated, digitally savvy young people.

The pioneering cable and satellite television network, which positions itself as a “thinking person’s YouTube,” is dedicated to “re-defining news and information for a young-adult audience,” said Lauren Pattison, director of research for Current TV. “The content all comes from their point of view, which really ups the relevance.”

From its research and viewer participation in its programming, the company has learned that, in general, its audience is driven to self-expression, is proud of its world knowledge and prefers authenticity and grassroots communication over slick or polished presentation, said Joshua Katz, president of marketing.

Because TV is linear and viewers can’t search through content as they can on YouTube and other video sites, it is up to Current’s editors and online ratings system to identify and organize viewer-generated content and ad videos in a way that will keep the TV audience engaged. The network collects insights gained from this selection process, said Katz.

Among the findings is that “smart is the new cool,” he said. This audience is inspired by education, knowing about the world and volunteerism. Katz added, “They tell us they are proud of being smart, so we never try to dumb things down.”

Another finding; organization and predictability are not highly prized among this group. Current TV videos are broken down into 54 different categories and clustered in single-category 3-8 minute pods. A box on the TV screen informs viewers of the topics of upcoming pods. Programming jumps from category to category, and topics are juxtaposed without a predictable system. “The idea is to reflect what our audience is thinking at that moment, and it is always changing,” said Katz. The variety has proven to be addictive. Thirty-six percent of the audience comes to the channel during commercial breaks on other channels, and of those 60 percent stay long after the break is passed. “People tell us they look up and two hours have passed,” he said.

For Current’s brand push starting in October, London-based Heavenly is handling creative duties, and AKQA, San Francisco, will oversee digital media buying and planning. The effort consists primarily of a new consumer-oriented Web site, event marketing at music festivals and online social marketing, including blogs, social media and peer-to-peer networks. Previously the brand has conducted limited event marketing and minimal marketing overall.

Current will unveil a companion consumer Web site by mid-November designed for use while watching the TV channel, Katz said. Seventy percent of Current TV’s audience watches TV while looking at a laptop computer, per network research.

Current has learned from experimentation that demonstrations of its skills are effective marketing tools. If viewers experience a sample of what the network does, they will come back for more, said Katz, which is why the network has turned to experiential marketing at music events. The network demonstrates its video-making skills by having Current TV filmmakers informally document people during the festivals and solicit audience-generated videos and then present the branded footage on the Jumbotrons between live performances. The approach was used at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in July in Manchester, Tenn. “It shows how Current TV captures the moment, and tells viewers they can get more of it by watching our TV programming,” Katz said. The marketer is also planning to offer videos from its TV programming in the form of branded films at college film festivals, he said.

Current TV, founded by Al Gore in August 2005, is staffed by dozens of young people in sweatshirts and jeans laboring at sleek digital TV equipment in downtown San Francisco. A third of the videos aired on the network come from viewers who submit their work to a Web site (www.current.tv. ) where visitors vote on whether to greenlight them to appear on the airwaves. Staff correspondents stationed around the world create the remaining two-thirds of Current’s programming. The content includes daily pop culture coverage, political satires, music coverage and first-person journalism.

The most recent addition is a daily televised music blog launched Aug. 15 that gives viewers 90-second doses of daily music news using audio clips from music blog aggregators, user-generated videos, concert footage and cell phone camera images.

As far as advertising, almost half the ads for Current’s sponsors such as Microsoft, General Electric, Electronic Arts, L’Oreal and XM Satellite Radio are created by the viewers. Ad submissions are judged by online visitors in one of the most highly trafficked sections of the site, and advertisers approve the winners before they hit the air, according to Katz.

The TV network is available in 41 million households in the U.S. and 10 million in the U.K., Katz said. Current’s television and online visitors are primarily affluent, college-educated people in their 20s who tend to be influencers in their social group, he said. Those who tune in to the TV programming watch an average of seven-and-a-half-hours a week, he added.

Outside research reinforces the importance of video viewing among Net-savvy consumers. EMarketer projects that by 2011, 87 percent of the U.S. Web population will view online video, up from 63 percent in 2006. In raw numbers, that means the number of viewers will rise from 114 million in 2006 to 183 million in 2011. EMarketer studies show that news, movie and TV trailers are the leading types of video content viewed.