Lessons Result in a New Discovery

WASHINGTON Over at the Discovery Channel, marketing plans are being drawn up for the Oct. 4 launch of Last One Standing. In it, six athletes immerse themselves in remote tribal cultures, learning, among other sporting games, how to whack each other’s shins with sticks (the winner of that one is the last player on his feet).

Although marketing details are still being worked out, what’s known is the target demo (men 18-49 who like sports, cars and women) and that the plan will focus on the immersion of the three American and three English athletes into remote tribal cultures. More importantly, Discovery knows it will apply the lessons it learned about audience behavior and online engagement from the Jan. 15, second-season launch of Future Weapons.

The approach Discovery took for Future Weapons, a show hosted by a former Navy SEAL, was a significant departure from the net’s previous marketing efforts, which had used the Web primarily to run promos for its TV programs. For Future Weapons, it not only developed an extensive microsite, but it flipped around the model of how marketers typically use them. Instead of focusing on TV and print ads and using the site as a companion piece, print and TV ads drove people to the main marketing component, readyaimfuture.com, and then to the show itself.

“We are taking our successful learning from Future Weapons and are thinking there probably could be a tease site [for Last One Standing] and [are also] exploring whether we could do a game,” says Julie Zito, Discovery’s director of strategic marketing. “It’s a similar target demo and doing a multi-platform integrated campaign makes sense [as] this is a really immersive experience into cultures a lot of Americans have never been exposed to before.”

Discovery also learned that a successful site can be built quickly—in this case, only 30 days—and that by serving as the foundation element to which other media can link, it allowed the network to make more strategic media buys using local affiliates and cable, reducing the overall cost of the campaign. (Discovery spent $1.1 million on print alone for Future Weapons from December 2006 to January 2007, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.)

“The nice thing about the experience online is that the audience can go deeper,” Zito says.

Michael Pond, a media analyst with Nielsen/NetRatings, said the Future Weapons microsite was also interesting because it used the Internet to build anticipation and interest before a show’s premiere, rather than after. “Here, marketers may find value in understanding the [benefit] of driving people to the Internet before the launch of the product or TV show,” Pond says.

Discovery’s switch in tactics was due to a switch in scheduling: Future Weapons changed nights to replace American Chopper, a popular show with young men that was moving to The Learning Channel. Discovery’s marketing executives wanted to keep the first season’s viewers of Future Weapons and get new ones to replace the sizeable “gearhead” audience that would likely follow Chopper’s move.

Readyaimfuture.com debuted on Dec. 15, 30 days before the show’s second-season premiere, complete with gadgets, games and content about the weapons in the upcoming show. Ads were also embedded in the mini-site pages for other Discovery shows and for products from other marketers. Instead of making the ads stand out as separate content, shading and special lighting was used to make them look, at first glance, like an organic part of the site, which has a secret agent theme.

The marketing strategy also involved a “trickle effect” approach, another first for Discovery, where the campaign was revealed in snippets of content released every 10 days and then every three days (when the premiere approached) to build interest.

The campaign was divided into five phases covering the microsite launch, print ads that used thermal paper and bluecasting technology to reach mobile phone users, downloadable wallpaper, widgets, games and videos with sneak peeks at the weapons and upcoming episodes, and a partnership with Microsoft to give away 2 million free points for the Xbox Live video game.

Three million visitors went to the microsite in 30 days and the show received 43 percent more viewers than Discovery expected, according to Discovery marketing executives. In the end, they say no one medium gave them the numbers they wanted. Rather it was the combination of several quick little hits that added up to the big bang.

While Discovery will not say what the efforts cost, buying 2 million Xbox points on the open market would cost about $50,000 and a four-color, full-page ad in Time $241,000, according to Time’s media kit (Discovery ran a full-page, four-color ad in Time targeted to the gearhead audience it wanted to reach.)

The microsite was created by the Pappas Group in McLean, Va., with the team headed by its president, Anthony Pappas, a gamer. Zito and Discovery cd Stefan Poulos gave him a one-line theme, which became the tagline—”Your access is granted”—and told him to develop a Web-based campaign.

The assignment, says Pappas, “was to build a really interactive, heavily branded mini-site for a new show premiere on a company-wide technology platform while generating ad clicks and working with four internal [Discovery] groups and three external agencies in less than 30 days. Uh, no problem.”

Translation: Discovery wanted all the bells and whistles of an amazing, next-generation Web site using the company’s existing content management system; wanted it to appeal to advertisers; and wanted it coordinated through Discovery’s creative, marketing, media planning and on-air promotions groups as well as two additional outside agencies, each responsible for a different part of the campaign.

Pappas calls their strategy “fresh and frequent.” “Give them a reason to come back,” he says.

The microsite went up on Dec. 15 as planned. Discovery then released a print ad featuring a bullet hole, the Discovery logo, the URL and the date Jan. 15. This was called the “tease” phase. On the Web site, users saw metal doors like those used to protect a bank vault with three bullet holes in them. They could see and interact with one weapon, a six-grenade automatic launcher, that would be used in the upcoming show. This tease phase generated 600,000 viewers in a 10-day period, according to Discovery’s Web tracking system.

On Dec. 25, Discovery initiated the “peek” phase. A print ad, placed in magazines including Time and Wired, used heat-sensitive paper designed to appeal to the James Bond wannabes in the target audience. Viewers could place their thumb on a part of the ad, which then revealed a secret code. They were instructed to enter the code on readyaimfuture.com, where a number key pad appeared on the vault-like doors. The doors then opened enough to reveal two more weapons. The peek phase generated 1.2 million viewers in 10 days.

“From a strategy standpoint, instead of just using a Web site and e-mails, we also wanted to get other devices involved like cell phones,” Pappas says. “The idea of the secret agent is you can play a secretive role; dialing in from a cell phone and getting access fits that role.”

During the “reveal” phase, starting Jan. 5, a second print ad posted on bus shelters used bluecasting technology where the ad would send a text message or a video depending on what the bluetooth-equipped mobile phone could handle. There was also more content on the site, which now featured all of the weapons from the first season. The reveal phase garnered 2.3 million viewers in seven days.

Discovery had formed a partnership with Microsoft to give away the 2 million Xbox Live points in three days as part of its “engage” phase, which began Jan. 12. Viewers could enter for a chance to win at readyaimfuture.com. To keep the Xbox Live users coming back, the Pappas Group added more content, like clips of some upcoming episodes. The engage phase generated 3.5 million viewers in three days.

On the day the show premiered, the mini-site featured a full schedule of the upcoming programs, all 20 weapons that would appear in them, puzzles and games like Fly a Drone, which gave viewers the chance to interact with “a drone you can call your own.”

The site generated 3 million viewers in 30 days. There were more than 1 million downloads of Xbox Live content for its Gears of War game in two days. And the Future Weapons premiere was the No. 1 non-wrestling, ad-supported cable show that night, rating a 2.0 among men 18 to 34.

Stephen Mealy, founder and CCO for Interactive Media Events, a Washington, D.C.-based group that organizes digital conferences, has worked on interactive campaigns as a cd for IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers. “It’s a bit rare to have such a large commercial [micro]site,” he says. “It’s unheard of to do it in 30 days. And it’s outstanding that they could get 5 million viewers.”

In 2006, 27 percent of marketers created a multichannel campaign that drives traffic to a microsite, according to Jupiter Research. So far this year, the percentage has reached 26 percent.

“We have found that Discovery core viewers’ interest in a program can be piqued by early engagement in the property online,” Zito says. “We can provide them with deeper information on the program than they can get from more traditional media [like a print ad] with the hopes that they will become excited about a show premiere, start talking about it with other viewers and then tune in.”