‘The Hills’ Is Alive

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.)

The numbers show that among the 240 fans who watched only the on-air version of the show, about half said Pepsi promotes music events and supports music artists, while less than 30 percent said the brand was in touch with youth culture. About 15 percent of the TV-only watchers consider Pepsi “cool” or “hip” while about 1 percent indicated that Pepsi exposed them to the latest trends, styles and fashion.

But those numbers skyrocket among fans who watch the TV show, go online and enter The Hills virtual world. Upwards of 90 percent of those viewers said Pepsi promotes music and recording artists, while almost 70 percent considered the brand to be both in touch with youth culture and cool or hip.

And Pepsi’s products were a hit with participating consumers in MTV’s virtual world. The soft drink was the top-selling product in 2007, moving more than 110,000 cans that were virtually recycled and used more than 650,000 times. The cans were also seen in use over 2.4 million times by 85 percent of the user base, according to the study. “Those are very high numbers,” said Pepsi’s Vail. “To have people in-world using their virtual MTV bucks to buy Pepsi at those rates was amazing to us.”

Based on this early success, the study will be expanded to include other MTV franchises and possibly other co-owned networks as well, said Colleen Fahey Rush, evp research, MTV Networks.

According to Rush, a key finding from the study is that “multiplatform engagement is oversimplified. We tend to clump online into a single platform, and what we learned from the study is that there are so many ways to engage online now.”

The study showed that there are different groups of fans with what she described as “predictable” behavior. So-called “seekers,” comprising about 54 percent of those tracked in the study, look for as much added content as they can by going online to search for past episodes, cast bios and pictures and to read blogs and forums.

Rush defines a more proactive group of viewers as “generators,” or super fans who talk about the show in person and by instant messaging and texting. They don’t just read blogs about the show, they write them and create avatars for the virtual world. About one-third of those tracked in the survey fell into this category, Rush said.

It’s that sort of segmentation among different online user bases that intrigued outside researchers who have seen the study, including Joel Rubinson, chief research officer, the Advertising Research Foundation. “Differentiating between the seekers and the generators struck me as a significant,” said Rubinson. “What’s groundbreaking here is they were able to link engagement to an experiential environment that goes way beyond the core of the business. If they didn’t offer the generators the ability to publish their own comments, you’d be losing this ability to reinforce the relationship that people feel with the show and the fact that they’re enjoying themselves.”

Henry Jenkins. director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, who has also seen the study agreed. “Engagement is the term we use to refer not to just regular TV viewership but to a more passion-driven and more socially driven mode of watching television and connecting pieces together,” he said.

“One could argue that the modern television viewer is a kind of hunter and gatherer who collects pieces of entertainment information that they care about across as many different platforms as possible,” Jenkins continued.

“What MTV has come up with is really compelling in that they’re empirically verifying some of the initial hypotheses we’ve put forward about the emotion people feel to material driving their consumption across media platforms,” he said.

The study findings will be a key part of the marketing message to advertisers during this year’s upfront selling season, said Sean Moran, the network’s evp, ad sales. “It syncs up with what we’ve all talked about in the past, which is that multiplatform offerings deliver stronger impact for our consumers,” he said. “The study shows that. Now we have to work it beyond just [The Hills] and utilize it with other MTV initiatives.”

Part of the pitch to clients, said Moran, will be that MTV should be a must-look for advertisers targeting 12- to 34-year-old consumers, especially in light of ratings declines at the broadcast networks this season.

“That’s our wheelhouse,” he said. The message to clients: “We can be a replacement for your lost [broadcast] GRPs. Brand messages can turn the generators we’ve identified in the study into brand evangelists.”

Rubinson of the ARF said it’s a sensible strategy. “It becomes a co-branded experience. You start to feel about the brand the way you do about the program,” he said.

In a way, said Rubinson, it’s a modern-day form of sponsorship that occurred regularly in the 1950s, when advertisers would own shows, produce them, have their names embedded in the title, have live commercials and product placement in the show. “It became too expensive, but people are rediscovering it today in the form of cross-platform and branded entertainment and realize how powerful it can be,” he said.

Tim Rosta, evp, integrated marketing at MTVN, puts it another way: “We think of our audience as ‘Generation P,’ an audience that is programming their own world and creating content around our shows.

“What we’ve learned from the study is the more our audience engages with brand across platform the greater level of brand affinity they have,” Rosta continued. “When we infuse it appropriately, brands become part of the dialog giving us the ability to create brand ambassadors. They know somebody is paying for the programming so they embrace brands where we don’t try to fool them.”