I read somewhere recently that simply mentioning Paris Hilton on a Web site or blog greatly increases the number of hits it gets. So I want to make it clear at the very outset of this article that Paris Hilton is not featured in any way in this article. While Paris Hilton may be appropriate for campy TV shows, there is simply no room for her—for Paris Hilton—in this article, because Paris Hilton simply has no bearing on my topic.
I mention Paris Hilton only to highlight the Google phenomenon and how marketers are using every possible means to be listed higher on this megalithic search engine, which in turn increases their visibility to prospective customers. Marketers pay lots of money to specialists who use a variety of tricks to maximize search engine optimization. Search engines, as we know, are judged on the quality of their searches and the degree of relevancy of the listings.
But there is one technique that many people seem to have ignored—namely, the art of actually being relevant in the first place. If you have something of real value on your site, bloggers will find it and post about it. The higher the value of the content, the more blogs will post and the more sites will link to it.
A case in point is a viral video campaign I worked on (and wrote about for this publication) in 2005, called "The Institute for Backup Trauma," starring John Cleese. Before the video launched, we Googled the term Backup Trauma and found only a couple thousand random links to hospital services. Today on Google, depending on whether "Backup Trauma" is in quotes or not, you get between 12,800 and 2,860,000 search results. The client didn't pay for search engine optimization; it just had a high-quality interactive video experience on its site that people wanted to see and share.
The Live Vault Backup Trauma video is part of a growing trend by marketers to use rich media content on their sites to engage customers with their brands and drive measurable results. It's no secret that consumers are tired of being "targeted" by marketing and as a result are taking evasive action. Skipping past commercials with TiVo is like watching the dying world of traditional advertising flash before your eyes. Many marketers have poured money into Web marketing, but they've been shocked by the skyrocketing cost of banner placement on popular Web sites.
So one part of the solution is to make customers reach for you, using entertaining Web-based content. Which prompts the question, "How do you make successful, entertaining Web content that delivers bottom line results?" Here are some tips.
Deep down, most people don't want to work. They just want to bang on the drum all day. As a marketer, you can try to get around this fact, or you can embrace it in order to connect with your customers. People don't want to have their entertainment interrupted by your message. But they will choose to enjoy your marketing if it is entertaining all by itself.
Make the entertainment grow out of the brand
Some people confuse the concepts of brand-driven entertainment and "branded" entertainment. To me, branded entertainment means you've created something that's fun, then you put your brand on it, not unlike painting a logo on a racecar. This could work fine for sponsoring a race, but it doesn't make sense as an interactive Web experience; it's too obvious and superficial.
True brand-driven Web entertainment involves focusing on the core elements that define a brand, then designing the whole experience from scratch to reinforce the brand in fun yet subtle ways.
To do this right, boil down your brand essence to three or four key points, and use them as a kind of filter for all your creative brainstorming. Whether you are making an interactive quiz or video, a promotion, an e-card, or whatever else you dream up, ask yourself this question: After my customer has this experience, will the key attributes of my brand be reinforced in his/her mind? If the answer is no, keep at it until you find the right answer.
Here's a recent example for Dunkin' Donuts. Captains of Industry worked with Dunkin' to create a micro-site called the D Stop (www.dunkindonuts.com/dstop). The site contains a range of brand-driven entertainment content that's designed to engage customers. The Dunkin' Donuts brand is all about great coffee. Customers are understandably fanatical about Dunkin' Donuts coffee, to the point that they've formed a kind of tribe. The Dunkin' brand is a culture all its own, with coffee and other beverages and foods making up an important part of their customers' everyday rituals.
The Captains team visited Dunkin' Donuts stores and saw how people interacted with each other and with the counter staff (we also drank a lot of coffee and ate untold numbers of bagels). We talked with senior Dunkin' managers, and with many customers. This immersion in the Dunkin' brand and culture was the genesis for the Web content.
For example, we created 'Dunkinese' hand gestures, a fun, easy way for Dunkin' Donuts lovers to communicate with each other at a noisy construction site or across a sea of cubicles. One gesture, for example, involved pressing the palms of the hands together, which translates to "Thank goodness we're back in Dunkin' Donuts territory." It's used by coffee lovers who have been traveling outside of areas where there are Dunkin' stores, but have thankfully returned so they can enjoy a decent cup of coffee. The concept also works because every culture has its own unique ways of communicating. Now Dunkin' Donuts culture does, too.
Another good example of content growing out of the brand is the Norelco full-body shaver campaign (www.shaveeverywhere.com). A white-robed guy walks onscreen to talk about why the new Norelco shaver is ideal for men because it helps make a certain body part appear longer. While I haven't seen the product brand document, my guess is that it would read something like: "The cool, high quality 'all over' body shaver for young guys; fun, irreverent, edgy, sexy." Using bananas to talk about extended male genitalia would not exactly fly with the Dunkin' Donuts brand, but it's perfect for Norelco.
To be really engaging, it needs to be interactive
Just having a funny video on a Web site is not enough these days. If people want to watch funny video clips, they can find all they want at youtube.com or a thousand other sites with user-generated content.
Instead, you can use the latest version of Flash to combine the best of video motion pictures with clickable features. You can include branching storylines, "hot spots" within a video that trigger other content on the page, or other elements that put your customers truly in the driver's seat.
You need to recognize that your audience has complete control on the Web, something they really enjoy. Give people a chance to play with the brand, and they'll stick with you longer.
Every brand and product has a story. You need to tell it in fascinating ways, taking advantage of the Internet and broadband so that every desktop computer becomes your storytelling medium.
Perhaps your company has a mascot or icon that could become a lead character. Let's take Hush Puppy shoes, for example. Whenever I think of those shoes, that floppy-eared dog comes to mind. That dog could make for a great character in an online parody of American Idol, with different breeds of "singing" dogs. People could vote online for their favorite performance. Every song sung by the floppy-eared dog could link to a different kind of comfortable shoe, using different musical styles that correspond with shoe styles. This may be a dumb example, but you get the picture.
Remember, since before recorded time humanity has gathered around a fire—a light source—to be "enlightened" through great storytelling. We started with campfires. The ancient Greek theaters had lanterns. Early motion pictures used light shone through film and projected on a screen. Even radios had dials that glowed—and it's no coincidence that Franklin Roosevelt called his radio addresses "fireside chats." TVs have been growing brighter for decades.
And now computers all across the globe are lit up not just with spreadsheets but also with motion pictures that can move people. This is a tremendous opportunity for marketers to go beyond the confines of the 30-second commercial.
You can't be Guerilla Vanilla
If a brand-driven Web entertainment experience is to have major, widespread pass-along value it can't be dull, safe, or ordinary. Some companies really want to be "viral" but don't have the cojones for it. That doesn't mean you can't make something wonderful for the Web that isn't edgy. But you may end up with a smaller audience—and that, as I'll explain, might be just fine.
Design your entertainment just for the people who really matter
Brand-driven Web entertainment doesn't have to be funny and engaging to everyone on the planet. In fact, you can make something that's only gut-bustingly funny to a few thousand people, provided they're the ones who end up buying your product. You can include inside jokes for software programmers, shoe manufacturers—you name it.
This is all part of the trend that began when cable TV first emerged. Now we have hundreds of very specific channels for a whole range of interests, like fly-fishing. Today's blogs have incredibly narrow audiences. The personalization of TV now extends to corporate Web sites, allowing marketers to turn their sites into TV channels that appeal specifically to customers. For that reason, it's not necessary for a campaign to "go viral" and be viewed by millions of people in order to work.
In the case of Dunkin' Donuts, the D Stop was launched without a big media buy to announce it; advertising was done on the local level via the Web, newspaper, and emails to a limited list. Simply by having fun, brand-driven content on the site, Dunkin's email open and click-through rate was five times higher than the industry average. And people stay on the site four times longer than they used to stay on dunkindonuts.com. Now that it's begun the dialog with customers, the D Stop can serve as a platform for more email communications that will help drive customer loyalty, and trial of new products.
Mister Rogers attributed his ability to connect with children to the fact that no matter how many kids were watching, he knew he was always speaking to "one little Buckaroo." So don't be afraid to personalize your message to just the people you need—even if it's only one person (a CEO for example).
Plant 'Easter eggs'
An "Easter egg" is a piece of comedy or other surprising, fun thing that is hidden within the site experience. Bloggers are always trying to find things so they can brag about it to the world, which can increase the possibility of viral spread through the blogosphere. For example, when we did our John Cleese video for Live Vault, we planted a text message within a screen that could be read only if the video were watched in slow motion and frozen on that frame.
Within 24 hours of someone posting about the video on Slashdot.com, someone found the hidden message and created a post about it, further fueling discussion about the video. Over 75,000 additional views were logged on the video within that 24-hour period.
Create professional productions
There is a lot of competition already on the Web for entertainment. Most of it is user generated with a home-video look and feel. The vast majority of this content is absolute garbage. But because of the sheer volume, some funny material rises to the top.
Unless you're deliberately going for a home video feel, however, it's a mistake to cut corners with your company's Web productions. Most video that goes through digital compression for the Web loses considerable image resolution; so, if you're starting from less than high-quality source material, your Web video will look grainy and blurred. And while Phil from accounting is a funny guy, and the COO's cousin Carol has a decent video camera, these do not add up to a successful viral Web video campaign.
As they say in Hollywood, "Comedy is hard." Even the best writers in New York and LA often create material that doesn't exactly light up the screen. So set your standards high, and trust your gut. If it's not making you laugh, it's not going to make other people laugh.
The Web is a fast-moving medium. People are always hunting for new things to enjoy and tell their friends about. Plus, the Web provides a great deal of measurability and relatively low cost compared with traditional TV commercials and media buys. The combination of these factors provides you with an opportunity to experiment, gauge customer reactions, make improvements, and take things to the next level.
A single TV spot can cost upward of $300,000. And that's just to make it. Placing it on a popular show can cost a small fortune, without even the ability to track measurable results. That's why more and more marketers are carving out just a piece of their overall budget to test the waters in the world of brand-driven Web entertainment.
Be integrated, but keep the focus on creating quality content
While there are some viral campaigns that need little or no marketing around them to get going and build an audience, most brand-driven Web entertainment need to be promoted in a thoughtful way and integrated with your other marketing. This integration can include the usual tools of our trade, from email campaigns to print ads and trade shows, or guerilla campaigns with street theater or events.
If you splurge to hire a movie star, like John Cleese, you may need less marketing to get buzz going in your industry. Movie stars are stars for a reason. John Cleese could read the phone book and make most people fall on the floor laughing. The truth is, however, that no amount of marketing is going to make something go viral on the Web if the content isn't great.
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By outlining these tips for brand-driven Web entertainment—completely free of Paris Hilton—my intent is to provide a practical guide that marketers can use in their content-development efforts. Any idea presented here is not intended as a rule, because this area of marketing is too new, and is evolving too rapidly, for rules to be established with any credibility.
If I could distill all this down to one idea to remember, it would be this: Computers are today's campfires around which we are all gathered; if you have a good story to tell, people will listen.