MTVU Expands Online

WASHINGTON MTV Networks is tapping college students’ interest in social causes in its latest push to beef up the online component of its 24-hour college network. The new initiative is sparking viewer interest and luring new marketers to MTVU, which is broadcast to more than 750 U.S. colleges.

The college network has partnered with Microsoft in a deal announced Nov. 7 to bring a new online video series called “Cause Effect” to college viewers. The series features two student activists each week who are seen using Windows Live Messenger to take action on behalf of a social cause.

As part of its “I’m Initiative,” Microsoft donates part of the program’s advertising revenue—up to $100,000—to each of 10 charities including the American Red Cross, the National AIDS Fund and the Sierra Club.

The “Cause Effect” program is filmed like a documentary where the idea is not just to insert a product placement, but to make Windows Live Messenger an “authentic part of what these kids are doing,” says Tara Kriese, Microsoft’s senior project manager for the Windows Live Messenger “I’m Initiative.” Microsoft and MTVU will release two new episodes each week through the end of December.

Kriese says the “Cause Effect” campaign is part of an effort where Microsoft is testing up to 10 different marketing strategies to combine its products in programming that prompts its target audience to get involved in social causes. Kriese declined to elaborate on the specific marketing strategies. “We are making sure we are giving people peer-based assets like buttons and banners that users can take to put on blogs, their Facebook pages or e-mail to spread the cause,” she says.

The “Cause Effect” campaign is just one effort Microsoft will use to promote Windows Live Messenger. It plans to do a similar type campaign with online video but with different content aimed at a different target audience in the future.

The computer software company has leveraged the “Cause Effect” online video series by buying ads across the platform, which includes more than 300 sites like think.mtv.com (a social hub created through a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where students can get involved in social causes) and RateMyProfessors.com, a site mtvU purchased in January to gain greater access to the college-age audience. Microsoft’s ads for Windows Live Messenger have also been placed on MTVU’s college media network, which is a collection of 550 online college newspapers.

MTV’s college network introduced two new features Oct.10 on RateMyProfessors.com, a site where students can grade the teaching performance of their instructors. A top 50 list names the 50 “hottest” professors determined by student rankings, and a program called “Professors Strike Back” gives instructors a chance to respond to some of the criticisms wielded by students. The professors are featured in a video responding to student complaints.

“It’s very difficult to get inside the college bubble and we wanted a platform that students were driving where they were in complete control,” says Stephen Friedman, MTVU’s general manager, about the reason why MTV decided to purchase RateMyProfessors.com.

What Friedman didn’t expect is that RateMyProfessors.com would become the single biggest driver of traffic to MTVU’s site. The number of unique viewers on the site doubled from January to October 2007 to 29.2 million compared to 14.6 million last year, according to Omniture, which analyzes Web sites. “RateMyProfessors is the one time the students get to grade and they take it very seriously,” Friedman says.

MTV also added a widget where students can reach RateMyProfessors without leaving their Facebook page, and a rebuttal button on the site’s home page where professors can respond to the student comments on the entire page. Friedman admits that MTVU thought it was a risky move at first to add professor comments because it gave a voice to the page that students hear from all the time and could resent. “So instead of including a professor response per message, the professor can respond to the content on the page as a whole,” he says.

The college network is currently in discussions with advertisers about sponsoring “Professors Strike Back,” where a marketer could run a five-second promo before the featured professor’s response video. MTV is also considering other programs in which different aspects of college life, from dining halls to dormitories, can be rated by students. “We know peer recommendation is a powerful motivator,” Friedman says. “That’s why our partnership with Microsoft also makes sense.”

For Microsoft, having a program on MTVU and leveraging its ads for Windows Live Messenger on other sites like RateMyProfessors.com during the holiday season when it is difficult to reach college students made sense.

“This generation [of college students] realize their power as a group,” says Kriese. “They are constantly creating movements and they know they can mobilize a group of people that has nothing to do with geography to create change in a very short time.”

Citi is another marketer that has used MTVU to reach the college audience for its Platinum Select Visa card. Students earn points for getting a good GPA and paying their bills on time. They also receive MTV discounts and awards.

Though respected for its dominance of youth television, MTV has been criticized for lagging in its Internet efforts as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube continue to lure young eyeballs, says Roger Entner, svp, communication sector at IAG Research. Entner considers MTVU’s partnership with Microsoft to be a smart move. “This is one example of how [MTV is] trying to improve its standing on the Internet,” he says. “It’s a very subtle but very powerful way to show the audience the tangible benefits of using a relatively complicated product. If you have a product integration and then run an ad for Microsoft [around] it, the ad acts like it is on steroids.”

Andrew Frank, research vp at Gartner Research, sees Microsoft’s move with the mtvU partnership as an attempt to replicate what Google and Yahoo are doing to make its products and services a part of the social networking phenomenon. “Microsoft and MTV have a parallel interest in seeing if they can salvage the social networking advantages,” Frank says. “It’s admirable that they are experimenting, but what else can they do?”

Frank says there is a lot of confusion out there about what works with online advertising and what doesn’t work. “I think advertisers like Microsoft and MTV have to take a highly experimental approach to their media strategy,” he says. “It’s clear from our research that college users use a lot more instant messaging than the population at large, but there is also a clear trend to using social networking sites like Facebook’s Wall as an alternative to instant messaging and that is what marketers have to watch carefully.”

Frank also says that young people do a lot more multitasking than the population at large. “Just because it appears from comScore data that they are spending more time on a Web site doesn’t mean they are not doing other things at the same time,” he says. “Which raises the question of how much of their attention is a marketer really getting?”