NEW YORK Xeni Jardin isn’t exactly a household name, but she has a sizable following. As one of the creators of the popular blog Boing Boing, Jardin’s a bona fide Web celebrity.
Now, Microsoft is hoping she can lend some small-wattage star power to its “I’m Initiative,” which promotes Microsoft instant-messaging and e-mail by tying them to social causes. Through a deal brokered by Federated Media, Microsoft is underwriting episodes of a new Jardin-produced Web series, “Boing Boing TV World,” which gives snapshots of international cultures.
The deal is one of several recently struck between small Web-video producers and big brands looking to connect with consumers beyond mass-market video destinations controlled by major media companies. The hope is that the comparatively high CPMs paid for small audiences — combined with the time needed to create the programs — will pay off with a brand impact deeper and more lasting than just plopping a pre-roll ad in front of a piece of content.
While the Boing Boing deal includes standard in-stream ads touting Microsoft, it also provides a personal touch: Jardin wrote a “shout-out” thanking Microsoft for making the series possible. Such touches give small video productions a leg up on the mass-produced fare offered by big media companies, said Chas Edwards, publisher and chief revenue officer of Federated Media.
“This is following a sponsorship model much like public television,” he said.
The model favored by niche video producers comes with benefits advertisers are unlikely to find with larger entities. At Revision3, hosts of programs like “Diggnation” and “Tekzilla” incorporate advertisers into their shows, explaining offers to viewers. For example, last fall, Diggnation host Kevin Rose, who boasts a rabid following online, told viewers about a deal Virgin America was running. The resulting traffic “overwhelmed their servers,” said Jim Louderback, CEO of Revision3. Rose’s personal connection with his audience of “fanboys” gave the decidedly low-tech form of advertising greater power than standard placements, he said. Revision3 boasts that 48 percent of its viewers have bought products endorsed on its programs.
“Even if you’re reaching 200,000 viewers, you’re reaching them with far more impact,” he said.
Therein lies the conundrum for advertisers. While all want interesting, innovative programs that skillfully weave their brands into content, striking deals with tiny programmers, even if they have loyal followings, is challenging. It often makes more sense for an advertiser to create its own content than piggybacking on a Web program with less than 500,000 viewers, said Brian Monahan, global lead for social media at Universal McCann, Microsoft’s agency, which is part of the Interpublic Group. “I immediately go to the CPM of these things. What’s the reasonable expectation if you’re not going to have a runaway viral hit?” he says.
To mitigate this risk, many Web programs are joining with distribution and advertising networks. Federated Media, for example, included a regular run of ads across its blog network as a way to guarantee Microsoft’s reach for its program in case “Boing Boing TV World” doesn’t take off. Revision3 regularly runs campaigns across multiple programs. Companies like Blip.tv not only match advertisers with niche content, they also provide distribution relationships with video sites. This lured Digitas to scrap a deal with AOL in favor of Blip.tv for the second season of “The Smart Show” a branded entertainment vehicle for Holiday Inn Express. As part of the program, Holiday Inn overlay ads and sponsorship messages appear on niche programs like Beet.tv, which covers the business of Web video, and Wine Library TV.
“What we found is that partnering with smaller, more hungry entities who started in the video space was more fortuitous because they inherently understand what we’re trying to do,” said Brian Babineau, vp and media director at Digitas. “Their audience is the bull’s-eye of what we’re looking for.”
There are added benefits that come with such deals. Example: Beet.tv creator Andy Plesser interviewed Digitas exec Ben Jones about the program. He and Wine Library TV creator Gary Vaynerchuk are also blogging for “The Smart Show” site. Such extras are par for the course, said Dina Kaplan, COO of Blip.tv, since small Web video creators tend to get excited by their sponsorships. Puma felt this effect when it struck a deal with Blip.tv to advertise its shoes on an overlay running across several programs. Two programs’ hosts will soon wear Puma gear during shows.
“You can’t get that with traditional online buys,” said K-Yun Steele, media director at Moxie Interactive, the Publicis Groupe agency that handled the buy for Puma.
Still, problems remain for niche Web video programmers. The most glaring is the inability of advertisers to get reliable third-party metrics. Kaplan terms this the “biggest hurdle.” Another is the scale issue. Despite advertisers’ love of the long tail, agencies only have finite time to deal with properties. “You’re not going to get a Web video show that rivals American Idol,” concedes Kaplan. Such programs are still relegated to experimental budgets. Finally, measuring success is difficult with traditional metrics. Clicks aren’t ideal, while gauging only impressions makes the series look hopelessly inefficient compared to bigger programming options.
“It will feel niche,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, which has run campaigns on small-scale Web programming. “These things feel a little small and a little too much work to deal with.” Yet, “the small outweighs the big,” he added. “A lot of the beauty happens on the small side of things.”