The Biggest Web Series Opportunity for Brands Wasn’t at the NewFronts

Encore to Austen-inspired Lizzie Bennet Diaries set for this summer

A few weeks ago, the top players in Web video rolled out dozens of new, high profile, star-filled series projects, looking to sway buyers and steal from TV budgets.

But it’s possible that the most desirable Web video buy was completely absent from the NewFronts. Indeed, a big question to watch for in this space is which brand or brand is going to nab The Lizzie Bennet Diaries this summer?

Wait, is that the one starring Gwyneth Paltrow or Cheryl Hines?

No. Actually, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a year-long, 100-episode Web series that ended last month. The show, which has inspired a rabid, weird and fascinating following, is based on Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Although, per executive producer/co-creator Bernie Su, Lizzie Bennet is a lot closer to a new generation Lonelygirl15 rather than a 19th century novel. The show consisted of four- to five-minute episodes of actress Ashley Clements looking into the camera vlogger style and talking about friends, dating trials, weddings and her version of Mr. Darcy, i.e. Snobby Mr. Douchey.

“We’ve seen book adaptations in every format,” said Su, who partnered with fellow YouTuber Hank Green (vlogbrothers) on the show. “We thought it was a great experiment to try, doing it in short increments. We tried to figure out how [to] sustain it and make it economically viable.”

The initial plan was to try for 24 episodes over 12 weeks, Su explained. "We’ll see what happens after that. If it failed, we’d just stop. And then we came out of the gate hot. It was pretty evident that viewership was strong. We were seeing an 80 percent finishing rate, something that many channels can’t even imagine."

In the end, Lizzie Bennet netted out at 100 episodes, the last of which premiered March 28. Some episodes exceeded 500,000 views, some landed at around 200,000. But remarkably, a year into the project, episode 100 has generated over 400,000 views.

But that hardly captures the show’s popularity. A Kickstarter campaign for a DVD set of the show has netted $462,405 to date (keep in mind the show is free online).

Plus, there are over 800 pieces of Lizzie-inspired fan fiction on the Web and there’s a whole world of Web art derived from the show. With more than 200,000 subscribers, several spin-off Lizzie channels also claim big subs numbers. And amazingly, Lizzie Bennet the character has over 40,000 Twitter followers. A handful of other characters from the show have over 20,000.”The Twitter audience is bigger than the show,” said Su.

But surprisingly, Lizzie Bennet didn’t land an exclusive brand sponsor. While Su did find an ad sales partner for the series right away—the video ad/production firm Deca jumped on board by episode four to help sell and fund the series—to date, the show has carried standard pre-rolls and overlays from brands like Target and Pepsi. Same for the bridge series Welcome to Sanditon, which started last week (it’s set in modern times but based on Austen’s unfinished novel of the same name).

Deca co-founder and CEO Michael Wayne expects a major ad integration or two this summer when the second novel gets the modern Web vlog treatment (he and Su aren't saying what the new book will be. More Austen? Dickens? Stan Lee?)

“When we started to talking to Bernie, this was a very similar experience to when we worked with Smosh years ago,” said Wayne, talking about the huge YouTube-born comedy team. “There were lots of likes, comments, shares," he said. "And there was a great blueprint. The genius was clearly there.”

As is the engagement. The audience for Lizzie is 90 percent women and 50 percent over the age of 18, said Wayne. But still, there have been no Lizzie-specific deals to date. "I think unlike lifestyle content, it’s a little different with scripted," said Wayne.

Still, Su, a former ad operations guy himself,  is confident a breakthrough is coming. I’d like to try and make it work if it makes sense. I think if the right brand opts in it could be like Reese's Pieces and ET."

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