NEW YORK — A panel of online media executives may be biased about the popularity of online-video content, but you can't say the same about an entire room full of conference attendees raising their hands to admit they've watched videos over the Internet within the last week. In fact, the trend is even more pronounced than expected: The majority of the audience at a session of the AlwaysOn OnMedia conference here this week actually copped to having watched video online during the past 24 hours. As the panel -- "Online Entertainment Content: Is Madison Avenue Buying It?" -- continued, panelists suggested matter-of-factly that, if advertisers aren't buying into video, they're going to be left behind -- especially in this economy.
"The screen is wherever the end user happens to be," said Brian Murphy, executive vice president of branded entertainment at event-marketing agency TBA Global. Whether it's on the computer, the television set, or the mobile device, he said, the role of advertising has shifted as advertisers relinquish control of the message and empower the consumer with the promise of interactivity.
"We may not be the smartest people, but we're the entertainment people," said Lance Podell, chief executive officer at Next New Networks, which bills itself as a builder of "microtelevision networks." In Podell's view, entertainment is actually the most powerful way to connect with consumers, thanks to its humorous and emotional impact. While commending advertisers for moving from the passive cost-per-thousand models of online advertising to a more-rigous focus on the engagement of cost per click and return on investment, Podell emphasized that "you can't ever forget that, at the end of the day, marketers still need to make connections through the brand...through sound, sight, and motion."
The availability of tools and home equipment gave rise to the YouTube phenomenon, in which anyone -- regardless of age, regardless of technological expertise -- can now pick up a camcorder and essentially create their own television station. Because of the explosive growth of this market, said Erick Hachenburg, chief executive officer of online-video site MetaCafe, "the fun part's just begun."
Not surprisingly, there are some critics of this movement. For example, Mark Naples, managing partner at communications consultancy WIT Strategy, shared the opinion of American film director David Lynch, who has expressed discontent with the proliferation of online content and of visuals reduced to run on handheld devices. Naples conveyed Lynch's belief that the miniaturization is bad for the media industry, and it's bad for the visual medium as an art form. Lynch's perspective has merit, Naples said, and certainly resonates with many advertisers. "They're interested [in online video]," Naples said. "But with many reservations."
Given the lingering reluctance in the marketplace, digital media providers such as Next New Networks and MetaCafe are forced to strike a balance between what an advertiser wants consumers to watch -- and more important, what meshes with its brand image -- and what the audience is actually watching. One major consideration, according to MetaCafe's Hachenburg: The Web is the first screen that 18-to-34-year-olds see, and this audience requires content that's edgier without necessarily being illegal or offensive.
Podell, for his part, admitted to erring on the side of "PG"-rated content in the debate of "PG versus R."
TBA Global's Murphy categorized consumer-preferred online-video content into four rough categories:
- shocking; and
Within these categories, the tolerance level for what's acceptable has expanded, he said. Brands, however, should be less concerned about the acceptibility of the content and more about its relevancy and scalability.
With such high consumer interactivity, online entertainment is not just about entertainment. "We learn a lot from consumers," Podell said, urging advertisers not to fear the viewer-feedback process, especially on a site such as Next New Networks, which provides online-video content strictly for the Web. "Our viewers are not offended by advertisements," he said. "They understand how we stay in business." In fact, he added, one of his advertisers released a new sewing machine with features that came directly from user comments. Getting immediate feedback is one game-changing advantage online media has over mass media channels such as television -- and, in a down economy, it's an advantage that can mean the difference between success and failure.
Coming out of the recession, online media won't disappear, or even slow down much. "It's just what it is. It's [inevitable] that brands are going here," Murphy said, "Five years from now, I don't know if we'll distinguish 'on' or 'off.' "
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For more on CRM amid the economic downturn, see the February 2009 edition of CRM magazine, The Recession Issue.