Interactive Quarterly

Oh Yes Wyoming! With the trees and the horses and the rocks and the sheep. Oh Yes I’m Going! Through the plains and the trails and the streams and the hills. Oh No Nebraska! Is there a plainer state I ask ya. Oh Yes Wyoming! There’s no place I’d rather be roaming.

The campy lyrics—which conclude with the spelling of the Cowboy State’s name, à la Oklahoma!—belong to the title song of a fictitious Broadway show referenced in the first installment of “The Adventures of Seinfeld & Superman.” The faux musical received only a mention in the American Express-sponsored Webisode, but it captured consumers’ fascination. So much so that Internet users discussed it on Web logs, distributed the tune’s words and passed along related trivia. Even the University of Wyoming requested to use the song at pep rallies.

“I’m a big believer in the phrase, ‘I’ll decide, not you.’ I think that is the consumer mantra today,” says AmEx chief marketing officer John Hayes. “We recognize that what you really want to do is offer the consumer the opportunity for engagement. Let them take you up on that, each step of the way.”

And engage them, AmEx did. In the two weeks following the March 29 debut of the first of two Webisodes starring Jerry Seinfeld, an animated version of Superman and, naturally, AmEx, the site attracted more than a million visitors. That number quickly rose to more than 2 million, and people returned after the May 20 release of the second online short. Though the films were five minutes long, visitors to the site stayed an average of 10 minutes, discovering special features in Seinfeld’s virtual apartment, including an Oh Yes Wyoming playbill that when clicked on played the song in its entirety.

For AmEx’s use of the Web as the lead horse of a high-profile campaign, as an integral part of its marketing efforts, and as a customer retention, acquisition and engagement tool, Adweek Magazines’ IQ has named the New York-based company its Interactive Marketer of the Year.

Of course, leveraging online films for marketing purposes is not groundbreaking. BMW arguably pioneered the concept in 2001 with “The Hire,” which has been followed by digital films from Donna Karan and Volvo, among other advertisers. “The whole Webisode thing has turned into a tactic,” explains Gary Stein, a senior analyst at New York-based JupiterResearch. “It lengthens the amount of time and connections you have with people.”

Acknowledging that “everything in life is iterative,” Hayes admits that “certainly, we were aware of BMW Films. So, to say that we weren’t would be to sidestep the obvious.” Unlike many of its predecessors, however, the Barry Levinson-directed shorts relied on humor. Another unique attribute: “It was easy to communicate the content,” says Hayes.

“You can tell a more in-depth story than you can with a 30-second commercial,” said Seinfeld at a March press conference introducing the effort. “When you’re looking for something to do, you can go to the computer instead of the television, and you can watch it and explore whenever you want.”

All AmEx had to say was “Seinfeld,” and fans were clamoring to see the comedian—who had maintained a relatively low profile since his series ended six years ago—reunited with his favorite superhero.The duo had last teamed up for a 1998 AmEx Super Bowl commercial.

Even though the Webisodes claimed a fraction of the millions of viewers the Big Game commands, AmEx decided the Internet was the best venue for the Seinfeld-Superman reunion. “If I put it on the Super Bowl, they could be leaving the room to get a bag of chips,” explains Hayes. “I think each person who takes the time to put in a Web address, pull up a Webisode and sit and watch it, that shows a great deal of interest and involvement.”

Crediting Seinfeld and WPP Group agency Ogilvy & Mather in New York with the storyline, Hayes says, “Jerry got a kick out of this idea of working with Superman and finding the situation where Superman is powerless, and of course Jerry comes to the rescue, [and] the card comes to the rescue when all else fails.”

In the first Webisode (“A Uniform Used to Mean Something”), Seinfeld employed AmEx’s guarantee to replace damaged goods within 90 days of purchase to return a broken DVD player, and in the second (“Hindsight Is 20/20”), he called on the company’s roadside assistance after the Man of Steel accidentally locked his keys in the car. The magic of the Webisodes is that AmEx was able to incorporate a product message within entertaining content. “The thing that I like best about it was that it was an ad,” says Stein. “It was a product demonstration that was clearly communicated in a clever way. It just happened to be five minutes longer [than most ads], and they had high production values and fun characters.”

But did the cost of the talent-heavy endeavor offset one of the Internet’s main selling points—its return on investment?

“It all has to do with whether or not you have the resourcefulness and the imagination to say, ‘How might this thing work?’ For me, you have to start with content that people really want to engage with. Once you have that, then you have to find out what are the best channels,” Hayes says.

AmEx used a number of means to spread the word about the Webisodes, from 15-second TV spots to Seinfeld plugging the project on The Today Show, The Daily Show With John Stewart and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. In May, the company ran the first Webisode in full and showed a sneak peek of the second during an hour-long block of Friends on NBC. That formula was repeated during the June 15 premiere week of Sex and the City on TBS.

“We learned a lot about what drives the best kind of interactions on the Internet site,” reports Hayes. For instance, AmEx got more mileage out of Seinfeld’s appearance on the The Daily Show than from the teaser spots.

“The Internet puts the customer in charge, not the brand, and you have to [spend more time] listening than talking,” explains David Kenny, chairman and CEO of Boston-based Digitas Inc., which has worked with the financial-services client since 1981. “American Express has always looked at it as ‘how does this really allow us to market with two ears and one mouth and use them in that proportion.’ “

“I’m pretty confident in saying we got our money’s worth out of this,” says Hayes. “And now, we need to think about where we go from here.”

While AmEx is still assessing the performance of “The Adventures of Seinfeld & Superman,” the company is already applying some of the learning, making the Web site for its latest effort more robust, for one. “Giving people a little more variety is one of the things that we learned so far, and how to organize that variety in a very simple way,” says Hayes.

The campaign, which broke earlier this month and introduced the tagline, “My life. My card,” shows Tiger Woods and Robert DeNiro, among others, reflecting on places, causes, avocations and achievements that are meaningful to them. It is complemented by an online destination that showcases their lives. Currently, visitors to the site can interact with items in Ellen DeGeneres’ handbag; when a user clicks on the talk-show host’s sunglasses, for instance, a video shows the world through her eyes.

“We have an expression where we say, ‘It’s not just matching luggage,'” says Laura Lang, president of Boston-based Digitas. “We really have to look at these experiences that encourage people to cross channels, that encourage people to engage in the way that they want. So that means that sometimes the same concepts and ideas will come to life very differently in one medium versus the next, even though they’re all woven together with the outcome.”

For AmEx, integration is merely a reflection of the consumer’s behavior. In its third year of sponsoring New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the company hosted a site where visitors could preview trailers, purchase tickets, download movie ringtones to their mobile phones and watch an original Web documentary featuring director Ed Burns and up-and-comers discussing the influence of New York City on film. AmEx also struck a yearlong marketing deal with AOL CityGuide to launch its IN:NYC credit card, which is meant to appeal to young New Yorkers by offering rewards for charging at city hotspots. And this month, the marketer teamed with MSN Music to give away song downloads to card members.

“We recognize that what we have to do is work more effectively across channels in ways that allow each channel to do what it does best,” says Hayes. One of the things that the Web excels in is fostering a sense of community—something of utmost importance to a company that focuses on the idea of membership.

To support its sponsorship of Bravo’s Blow Out, Open: The Small Business Network from American Express launched a sitelet designed to help business owners share experiences and opinions. The online forum showcased Jonathan Antin, the celebrity stylist and star of the reality series, and a diverse group of other business owners—including a cattle rancher, a contractor and television producer David Collins—who shared their insights on challenges to business growth. AmEx promotes Open heavily online, posting about 1.9 billion ad impressions for the small-business network from January to October of this year, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Overall, the company recorded more than 5.2 billion ad impressions for the first 10 months of 2004 across sites like Yahoo!, and The Weather Channel’s A substantial search-engine marketer, AmEx also makes targeted buys on sites like Daily Candy, Shecky’s, Flavorpill and Gothamist.

AmEx, which has used the Web to serve its customers for the past seven years, has come a long way since it launched its first significant online-marketing effort in 1999 for the Blue card. For the first seven months of this year, the company put $22 million behind online measured media—10 percent more than it allocated to the medium for all of 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

The online spending increase is a part of a larger but gradual shift in AmEx’s media dollars that started a decade ago, when the company put 80 percent of its annual marketing budget behind television. Today, TV represents just 35 percent of its ad coffers. (According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, the client spent $375 million on offline measured media last year and $200 million for the first nine months of 2004.)

Aside from the Internet, the money has gone toward experiential marketing and content development, as seen in AmEx’s presence at the U.S. Open and involvement with reality series The Restaurant.

“We didn’t just move everything at once. This has been a progressive process of learning, confirming and then moving forward,” comments Hayes. “Consumer habits have changed immensely, and certainly there have been many advances made that allow marketers to interface, engage with customers in new and different ways. I would say that those are the things that have driven us to change our spending patterns.”

As for American Express’ future marketing plans, Hayes guarantees, “You can count on us being even more active in the interactive space. There’s no question about it.”

Ann M. Mack is the interactive editor for Adweek.