Media and Marketing’s Top Innovations of 2008

Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School professor and economic theorist, calls innovation “the central issue in economic prosperity.” In the midst of the worst economic morass most of us can recall, these are some of the year’s best innovations in media and marketing—some that look to have lasting influence, others that could even prove to be real game changers for digital media, in-store marketers, the TV networks, even architects of political campaigns. Barack Obama, whose team harnessed the power of the Web as no “brand” ever had, changed how political races are run, and won. Apple’s iPhone 3G juiced up the mobile medium. And NBC’s multimedia spectacle from the Beijing Olympics had the quadrennial event finally living up to the hype, and became the standard for how those contests will get played—with or without Michael Phelps’ star turn. (Despite the Web’s encroachment, NBC’s groundbreaking TAMi audience-research initiative, launched during the Games, demonstrates that broadcast TV remains the “bedrock” medium—some good news for the beleaguered networks.) Even slow-to-change, easy-to-write-off old media like magazines and radio came up with some bright ideas—finally learning how digital media can help, rather than kill, their business. In a year as scary looking as ’09, it’s clear more innovation will be required.

—Tony Case, Editor, Special Reports (tony.case@nielsen.com)

Obama: Digital Change Agent
Onetime presidential aspirant Howard Dean proved that the Web could be a force for raising money online. Barack Obama this year took that proposition to an unimagined level, raising a healthy chunk of his nearly $1 billion in campaign contributions online. While marketers have drooled over the Long Tail, Obama grabbed it — attracting more than 1.7 million contributors, with 93 percent of $2.9 million in online donations coming in by way of increments of less than $100. What’s more, the Internet — and social-networking technology in particular — played a critical role in marshalling support for Obama’s historic election. The candidate collected millions of cell phone numbers in the run-up to his selection of Joe Biden as vice president, which then allowed him to send targeted notices of personal appearances and to organize networks of volunteers. “My BO” became a robust social network that helped supporters to self-organize. Even on Twitter, Obama was a star, drawing 146,000 followers of his short-message updates. And since the election, Obama has made strides toward using the Internet beyond organizing a campaign to reimagining government. He moved the fusty weekly presidential radio address to YouTube and launched the ambitious change.gov, where visitors can scan thousands of government jobs, see which groups have lobbied the transition and submit ideas for policy proposals. While marketers have struggled to fully harness Web 2.0 technology, Obama continues to prove its power. -Brian Morrissey

The TAMi Show: NBC’s Multiplatform Olympics
If the XXIX Olympiad will be remembered as a blockbuster (The Phelps Supremacy?), in media circles, the Beijing Games earned its historical bona fides as the first global broadband event. Over the course of two weeks in August, the NBC Universal research team transformed the Olympic Park complex into the world’s largest media laboratory — and from the metaphorical Bunsen burners and test tubes, the company produced TAMi. The culmination of NBC’s early efforts to measure all media exposure, the Total Audience Measurement Index demonstrated that no matter how insidiously the Web continues to encroach on TV’s turf, we’re still very much a civilization of TV viewers. Stacking digital data atop the broad base of TV viewership, the resulting pyramid looks a bit like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with broadcast functioning as the bedrock from which all else rises. A record 211 million people watched at least some portion of the games, and NBC beat its ratings guarantees by well over 10 percent. More importantly, NBC took in some $1.3 billion in ad revenue — of which a relatively tiny $5.75 million was tied to online buys. TAMi proved what many have long suspected: Online and mobile video do not cannibalize live TV broadcasts. And for all the hype, revenue from Web video is still just a rounding error when compared to the dollars TV continues to command. -Anthony Crupi

Hulu Takes Hold
NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker summed it up at the annual UBS Media Conference in New York last week when he described Hulu, the joint video-streaming venture of NBC and Fox, as “one of the great innovations of 2008.” The groundbreaking online video model succeeded in delivering popular programming such as Heroes, The Office and The Simpsons to consumers-wherever, whenever they wanted it. While still a work in progress, Zucker correctly pointed out that the site “far exceeded everyone’s expectations” after less than a year in operation. (Nielsen Online reports the site attracted 7.4 million unique users as of October, up from 2.2 million in March, just after its official launch.) As Web video content flourishes, consumers continue to be drawn to Hulu’s professional content (including not only repurposed TV shows but feature films) and top-quality video, which also is distributed via partner sites like Yahoo and MSN. By contrast, Google’s YouTube, with its much greater audience, remains pretty much the domain of, as Zucker pointed out, “a cat on a skateboard.” (Some have speculated that Hulu could overtake YouTube in revenue in ’09.) Buyers report that Hulu regularly sells out its ad inventory, a most-enviable predicament for a video site. Hulu continues to feed the considerable legion of doubters, who said the networks could never make a go of online video, a steady diet of their own words.  -Steve McClellan

iPhone Juices Mobile Medium
Apple’s iPhone 3G may not singlehandedly push mobile advertising to seriously-big-bucks, steady-line-on-the-flowchart status in 2009 — the sorry economy will most likely keep that from happening. And the trendy device won’t have the U.S. suddenly turning into South Korea, where 90 percent of the population dumps their PCs and starts watching movies and playing games on their mobiles. But in 2008, the iPhone phenomenon did create a shift in the mindset of the American consumer — from “Why would I want to surf the Web on my crappy phone?” to “I can do that? I want one now!” Thus, the touch screen has become the default design choice among models ranging from Google’s G1 and Samsung’s Instinct to the BlackBerry Storm (which, upon its debut last month, managed to create lines outside retail outlets reminiscent of those for the latest iPhone this past July). Then there are the many iPhone games and applications that have launched — everything from a New York Times app to the Social Gaming Network’s iBowl. It’s now clear that the mobile medium is going to get there, and that advertisers are going to have a real canvas to play on in the near future, one that goes beyond short-code messages and clunky WAP sites. For that, they can thank Steve Jobs.  -Mike Shields

HuffPo: The Rise of the Political News Site
In a year in which so many logged onto the Web with regularity to check the latest tracking polls in Missouri (perhaps far more than could be considered healthy), The Huffington Post led a growing constellation of political news sites that influenced much of the public discourse. Whether established players like CNN.com, MSNBC.com and Yahoo News or newbies like RealClearPolitics.com, Politico.com and FiveThirtyEight.com, the 2008 presidential campaign delivered a bonanza for digital purveyors of news. Most notably, the trend pushed Arianna Huffington’s three-year-old newspaper/blog hybrid into the mainstream, forcing every media player to rethink its business model while making celebrity soapboxing cool. In September, as the race for the White House sizzled, HuffPo’s traffic soared by a mind-blowing 474 percent versus a year earlier, to 4.5 million unique users, per comScore. The best news of all for the site: It is terrifically positioned to thrive post-election, having expanded its purview beyond its core political bent. Over the past year, The Huffington Post has launched sports and green content as well as a local Chicago edition. Its innovative Big News Pages feature — whereby editors instantly create news sections around the hot topic of the moment — runs the gamut, from channels devoted to Lindsay Lohan to headlines from Zimbabwe. With Arianna & Co. having just reeled in $25 million in funding — remarkable in these times — expansion plans are afoot. -MS

Fox’s Clutter Killer
This season, Fox confronted head-on the issue of commercial clutter, the growing number of ads and promos stuffed into shows by the networks. Recent studies have shown clutter averages, including all network and local ads and promos, surpass 15 minutes per hour — making TV shows, for a growing legion of viewers, impossible to watch without the aid of a commercial-skipping DVR. This fall, Fox debuted its new drama Fringe with roughly half the usual network commercial and promo load. Each episode boasts some 50 minutes of program time, versus the typical 44 minutes. Fewer breaks and shorter pods have led to less fast-forwarding and greater engagement with ad spots, according to third-party research. Season to date, Fringe is the top-rated new drama among adults 18-49, and it likely will see a spike in ratings come January, when American Idol becomes its lead-in. The quid pro quo: Advertisers pay a premium for that less-crowded environment. In February, Fox will debut a second series, drama Dollhouse, with a similarly reduced load of ads and promos. To what extent the model would work elsewhere in prime time is unclear: As network executives point out, advertisers tend to define clutter as everybody else’s commercials. -SM

Turner’s Big Year
Turner Broadcasting Systems barreled into the 2008 upfront like Charles Barkley in his heyday as the NBA’s most loquacious 6-foot-4 power forward: Charging the lane, pounding the glass and talking a blue streak. Turner’s brash intrusion into the broadcast upfront schedule prefigured a sea change for cable, which had grown frustrated with getting the malodorous end of the CPM stick. While the networks keep demanding more for less, Turner looked to boost its share in the marketplace by offering clients “broadcast replacement” inventory, time on ratings bonanzas like The Closer and Saving Grace that delivered reach and reasonable pricing. Once negotiations began in earnest, Turner was able to funnel a wealth of business away from broadcast, including fast food and packaged goods, and that influx of cash helped the company secure its most lucrative upfront to date. As Turner set the pace of the cable upfront, it also plotted a break from third-party ad networks. In June, Turner began developing an in-house system, packaging inventory across nearly 20 sites, ranging from proprietary brands like CNN.com to partner sites like NBA.com. The company now traffics online ads to some 50 million unique users and notches 3.5 billion impressions. As such, Turner is positioned to align clients with a stable of established Web properties, allowing advertisers to target sports fans or men 18-49 on several sites at once.  -AC

Zuckerberg’s Most Popular
Facebook may not, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg awkwardly proclaimed when announcing its ad strategy over a year ago, have changed the face of media, but it most certainly has changed the development of a medium. Its move in May of last year to open the social-networking service to outside developers proved remarkably farsighted and influential. Its platform spread like a virus in 2008. As MySpace quarreled with widget makers about building business off its audience, Facebook embraced the outside help. The rationale was simple but revolutionary: The surest way to build out services is to have an outside army of developers do it. To date, 400,000 developers have introduced some 52,000 apps-and Facebook, not coincidentally, has exploded, expanding its user base to 130 million worldwide. That not only led MySpace to embrace outside developers but also paved the way for Apple to open the iPhone platform. The result: Everyone has found platform religion. David Verklin, head of the cable TV consortium Project Canoe, even talks of the boob tube as a platform. When the book is written on Facebook — and many are in the works — its critical choice to open up to outsiders may be seen as its most lasting contribution to the development of digital media. -BM

All A-Twitter
It’s easy to make fun of Twitter. The short-messaging service’s simple concept — roadcast what you’re doing right now — has become synonymous with banal updates like your friend is “eating a taco.” To be sure, plenty of taco-eating bulletins are broadcast daily by the six million registered users of the two-and-a-half-year-old service. But the surging popularity of Twitter points to a social-networking truth: Our conceptions of one another — and brands — are often formed by bite-sized interactions. A single update does not in itself mean much — but taken with hundreds, even thousands of them, those little messages can come together to paint a rich portrait. What’s more, Twitter nailed something that’s fundamental to the Web: Keep it simple. Frustrating to some for its lack of bells and whistles, Twitter’s simple “What are you doing?” query and 140-character message limit are arguably its strengths. Twitter also proved that the most successful Web applications are flexible and open. Twitter’s designers never envisioned that consumers would use the service to communicate with one another, but users refashioned it as such, employing the prefix “@+user name” to direct replies. So, Twitter rejiggered to support that back-and-forth, while also letting outside developers build apps, further bolstering Twitter’s popularity. “Tweeting” may not be for everyone, but it’s clearly onto something: The 25-person company recently turned down a $500 million acquisition offer from Facebook.  -BM

Sponsor in Aisle Five!
Shopper marketing may never be the same. Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. retailer, this year led the way with the rollout of its in-store digital network, the Wal-Mart Smart Network. Powered by Internet Protocol Television, content, ads and merchandising can be monitored and controlled down to a single screen. Even as scores of video networks pop up, this represents a new paradigm, offering a level of precision targeting never before seen. Instead of relying on shelf-talkers and end-of-aisle displays to promote products, the Wal-Mart net creates a dynamic, interactive dialogue between marketer and consumer. (While utilizing the latest technology, the network also is a real throwback in terms of customer service, taking shoppers back to a time when the store clerk knew every item and could help the customer make informed decisions on the spot.) Operated by Premier Retail Networks, the network is the result of two years and $10 million in research aimed at the optimal content and placement of screens for engaging consumers at the point-of-purchase. Up and running in 300 stores in time for the holiday season, Wal-Mart anticipates chain-wide deployment (2,700 U.S. outposts) by early 2010.  -Katy Bachman

Cinema Ads a Star
When Naitonal CineMedia introduced digital ads in movie theaters back in 2002, it transformed the once-sleepy medium of cinema advertising into a dynamic platform, one with a network TV-sized reach. This year, digital networks in NCM-affiliated theaters and rival Screenvision hit their stride, dispelling many of the reasons advertisers once stayed away from cinema advertising — among them, poor targeting, high costs and long lead times. NCM’s digital network reached critical mass over the last year, with a presence on 91 percent of all its screens. Its preshow First Look, a mix of ads and entertainment from content partners that’s now in its third year, was seen by 70 percent of moviegoers in the top 10 markets this year, and more than 65 percent in the top 25. Building on that reach, NCM expanded First Look from the big screen to the computer screen with an entertainment site featuring social-networking elements. Cinema ads have, in fact, become one of the darlings of out-of-home advertising. With other media experiencing frightening declines, NCM is enjoying double-digit growth in ad business. Upfront bookings for ’09 are pacing ahead of this year, as a growing array of brands — among them, Holiday Inn Express, Canon, Gap, Zales and Hasbro — are stepping into the cinema advertising spotlight. -KB

Stardoll: Dressed for Success
Call it the intersection of kids, fashion, celebrity and the Web. While virtual worlds like Gaia, Zwinky and There.com have built a sizable following and landed big-name advertisers, Stardoll was a real standout in 2008. The two-year-old Swedish site has built a virtual playground for tween girls (with 22 million members and counting in 200 countries). Users can play dress-up using avatars of their own creation or virtual (and fully licensed) versions of celebrities like Hillary Duff and David Cook; fashions come via partner brands including DKNY and Vivienne Tam. Recently, Stardoll inked a pact with Italian designer Alberta Ferretti to open a virtual boutique in StarPlaza, the site’s shopping galleria. As part of the deal, teen celeb Zelda Williams (daughter of comedian Robin) appeared as a virtual brand ambassador, modeling Ferretti’s designs. In October, Stardoll announced a deal with Hachette Filipacchi Media’s Elle to launch a virtual fashion magazine. While more static social-networking sites continue to search for a workable business model, virtual worlds like Stardoll are taking online playtime to a whole other level. -MS

Web Amps Up Radio
Radio has been called the original interactive medium, but when it comes to streaming on-air signals on the Web, the medium  hasn’t been all that interactive, or engaging. That changed this past June with the introduction of CBS Radio’s new online player. Reinventing streaming, the player offered all that consumers expect of the Web, setting a new standard for how the oldest electronic medium can migrate to the newest. The player also served as the cornerstone of two groundbreaking partnerships between CBS Radio and two pure-play Internet radio services, AOL Radio and Yahoo LaunchCast. The consolidated networks, powered by the CBS Radio player, offer consumers easy access to more than 350 radio stations on CBS/AOL and more than 300 stations on CBS/LaunchCast. Over the summer, the CBS/AOL player was made available on Apple’s iPhone, and Clear Channel Radio launched its own iPhone app. At a time when terrestrial radio stations are facing double-digit ad declines on air, CBS Radio has opened new integrated-marketing possibilities. The combined CBS/AOL network drew nearly 2.3 million weekly users in September. The new network with LAUNCHcast is expected to increase that following to 3.5 million.  -KB

Oh, Snap! Magazine Ads Get Interactive
With the print ad business in freefall, a few publishers aim to make their ad pages a more engaging, truly interactive experience, taking advantage of the exploding popularity of Web-enabled mobile devices. Technology from Palo Alto, Calif.-based mobile marketing company SnapTell enables brands to send messages to readers who shoot photos of magazine ads with their mobile phones. Rodale’s Men’s Health, Wenner Media’s Rolling Stone and Disney’s ESPN The Magazine are some of the titles to have adopted the technology this year; participating brands include Absolut, Toyota and HBO. Using similar technology from Glendale, Calif.-based SnapNow, Hachette Filipacchi Media’s Woman’s Day enabled marketers like Dove and Kraft to offer discounts and giveaways. The “snappable” ads build on technology from ShopText in Norwalk, Conn., that places short codes in magazine ads as well as editorial content. Using ShopText, publishers like Conde Nast, Hearst Magazines and Meredith Corp. are enabling readers to research products and shop straight from the page. As Web-enabled devices continue to swell in popularity — and as publishers strive to make the print medium more indispensable to advertisers — snappable ads stand to become a more familiar presence.  -Lucia Moses