'The Hills' Is Alive | Adweek
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'The Hills' Is Alive

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NEW YORK For the past couple of years, media companies have been pitching the idea that digital platform extensions to their on-air TV shows are the game changers that can keep viewers engaged with the medium and advertisers. But they haven't had the data to back it up. That could be about to change for one network.

At its upfront presentation this Thursday in New York, MTV Networks will unveil to advertisers a case study that industry research professionals call "breakthrough" and "compelling." The findings demonstrate empirically how consumer engagement with programs and brands soars with each additional digital platform a viewer is exposed to.

The study was conducted for MTVN in January by Harris Interactive and MauroNewMedia. The online survey of 600 consumers examined in detail their involvement with MTV's hit prime-time show The Hills and also looked at perceptions of Pepsi, a key cross-platform sponsor. Network executives said the study will help them make their case in the upfront that MTVN is the place to target 12- to 34-year-olds, especially in light of declines in that demo among broadcast networks this season. Collectively, in prime time, the nets are down about 14 percent in that demo compared to a gain of 14 percent for MTV, according to Nielsen Media Research (which, like Adweek, is a unit of the Nielsen Co.).

As a soft drink marketer targeting kids, teens and young adults, who often think of themselves as "hip" and believe they are in the vanguard of cultural trends, Pepsi tries to create a brand perception linked to "coolness," and one that it is in touch with youth culture.

According to John Vail, director, interactive marketing group, Pepsi-Cola North America, that's part of the reason the company was a charter advertiser with MTV when the network debuted 26 years ago. Since then, Pepsi has embraced just about every media extension MTV has offered, including the network's first Web foray in 1996 and, more recently, its dive into the virtual world, starting with the program Laguna Beach two years ago. (On-air, Laguna Beach has been canceled, but it lives on in the MTV virtual world group.)

Along the way, however, Pepsi's marketing team hasn't always had the research to justify its acceptance of new media platforms, Vail admits. Two years ago, when Pepsi committed to MTV's first virtual world effort, that decision was largely based on gut, said Vail. "There was nothing else on the market we felt good about, so we decided to test it with a trusted partner," he said. "We try to go where our customers go. It's really as simple as that."

Last year, MTV expanded its virtual world to include its hit prime-time series The Hills. Pepsi joined as a sponsor, creating a category-exclusive, branded-content program there that included Pepsi vending machines that characters could pump their virtual coins into to buy a drink to quench their virtual thirst. Avatars could also acquire Pepsi-themed clothing.

And now, with the new research that deconstructs usage and engagement by consumers to different digital platforms, including, for the first time, virtual worlds, Vail has a pocketful of data to show his bosses that what was just a hunch a year or two ago is now proven: Viewer engagement increases dramatically for programs and their sponsors the more platforms that fans have to interact with.

The study, known as the "Multiscreen Engagement Case Study," examined a control group of 300 people who did not watch The Hills and a group of 300 who did. Among the 300 watchers, 80 percent, or 240 of them, rated the program highly, giving it a numerical score of 4 or 5, with 5 being the best score and 1 being the lowest. Most of the study focused on those viewers rating it a 4 or 5.

Among the findings was that Pepsi's positive brand image traits increased dramatically among fans who not only watch the show but browse The Hills content online, where Pepsi runs 30-second spots and banners. Positive brand image increased even more among fans who played in The Hills virtual world as well. (The average time spent there, according to MTV, is about 28 minutes per encounter.)

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