Why AOL’s Brand Studio Is Focusing on 360 Video More Than Virtual Reality

Thinks it will bring better engagement

This month marks one year since AOL launched Partner Studio, joining a growing list of publishers like BuzzFeed, Vox, The New York Times and Vice, who have created their own branded content shops. In its first year, AOL has worked with more than 100 name brands including Disney, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Chevrolet, and is planning to expand its global footprint to Brazil, Germany, Italy, Japan and Spain.

With so many publishers not just selling, but now producing advertising, AOL is trying to separate itself from the pack. 

"When certain brands are doing branded content I would argue that the brand is borrowing the editorial equity of that publisher or that platform, as opposed to helping the brand develop their own voice with the audience," said Mary Gail Pezzimenti, vp at Partner Studio.

Rather than trying to create a one-and-done campaign or make a video go viral, Pezzimenti said Partner Studio utilizes AOL's in-house research team, including data from corporate parent Verizon, to hone in on a brand's audience and find out what they're really interested in.

And while you can add AOL to the growing list of companies getting into virtual reality, Pezzimenti said AOL will be more calculated about how far, and how fast, they push. "Everybody was talking about VR, and VR is super cool and interesting," said Pezzimenti about the buzz last week at Cannes Lions. "But the truth of the matter is that adaption of VR right now with the audience is pretty premature."  

So AOL is primarily focused on 360-degree video. The company is set up to take full advantage of the technology following April's acquisition of RYOT and the opening a public-facing studio. Pezzimenti said 360 video will bring better engagement, "instead of just putting a VR execution out there because it's the bright and shiny new penny." 

Another new product aims to capitalize on big news events. Partner Studio Pronto, as it's called, is an amplification tool that came out of conversations with clients who "came to us and wanted to really rally around a burst, a blast, a very quick concentrated hit around a certain event," said Pezzimenti.

For its first project, AOL worked with Barefoot Wine to mark the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic vote to legalize same-sex marriage in the U.S.

Pronto will distribute the video across all of Huffington Post's digital and social channels, and then will be made available across all of AOL's properties.

With more and more advertisers pushing further into native advertising, Pezzimenti argues that having your own studio is the cost of doing business these days. "Because social media is such a portal to engagement with the audience, branded content is absolutely critical whether you're a brand, agency or media company."