The Role of Media Sharing in the Digital Marketing Mix

The rise of digital marketing has opened up a world of opportunity to win customers that goes well beyond search engine optimization, banner ads and link exchanges.

This is due in part to the evolution of the Internet, which is sparking creative ideas that leverage new online platforms for guerilla marketing at its best. Apparel companies, musical artists and company executives have all participated in social networking sites like MySpace.com and LinkedIn, for instance, and now we are beginning to see these same segments look to media sharing sites like YouTube and iFilm to push their products to the masses — for free.

Some companies are blatant about their media sharing ad initiatives, while others take a stealthier approach to using these tools by cloaking ads as entertainment. Either way, digital marketers are increasingly digging in and experimenting with new media delivery methods in their pursuit of greater market share.

“In the case of digital marketing, the way the media is delivered is as important as the media itself,” Darren Paul, managing director at Night Agency, a New York-based digital advertising firm with clients like Symantec, MTV, Sony and Motorola, told the E-Commerce Times.

“To optimally spread media around the Internet, you must get the content to the right people at the right time,” he continued. “You can build momentum and exponential distribution by using an array of different tactics and strategies to achieve the best possible outcome.”

Searching for Audiences

The publishing industry seems to understand Paul’s point. Random House, Workman Publishing, Scholastic and others are running commercials online that mimic movie trailers. Their goal: to capture new and different audiences for their books by taking their message to the places where people are spending more of their time.

“It is advantageous for a brand to go where their consumers are. Brands are also posting videos online because it is a free place for a brand to market its product to the audience it is most interested in targeting,” Paul said.

Laura Betterly, president and CEO of In Touch Media Group in Clearwater, Fla., has a similar take: “Media and the way to reach people are changing,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “With the advent of TiVo and the iPod, and with traditional mediums not getting the results that they used to, video, product placement and alternative methods to get to individuals are on the rise.”

A Fundamental Shift

The bottom line is brands are taking advantage of a fundamental shift in the way consumers use the Internet. The growth of always-on broadband Internet access has made streaming video a reality. When you couple this with the increasing percentage of media use dedicated to the Internet, you find more users coming to the Internet for entertainment, not just information and commerce.

In fact, according to Pew Internet Research, more and more users come to the Internet with no particular purpose in mind other than “to waste time.” In addition, the growth of viral and social media means that users can propagate videos that catch the imagination quickly and easily, which isn’t possible with video broadcast on TV or played on VHS, DVD or TiVo, since it lacks searchable immediacy.

This year has proven to be the year digital video exploded online. Marketers have responded by trying to become part of the conversation, according to Robert Davis, director of Strategic Services for THINK Interactive, with clients including IBM, Yahoo and Time Warner.

This could be challenging for publishers in particular, Davis told the E-Commerce Times, as users on media sharing sites might not always expect to see what those advertisers are apt to be peddling. “If I come across an interview video of an obscure fiction author on YouTube because it’s tagged ‘sexy,’ I’m not going to stick around if I was really hoping for Paris Hilton sudsing up a car,” he offered as example.

Creating a Winning Campaign

So how does a brand create a video that will succeed as content on media sharing sites rather than mere advertising — and one that viewers won’t shun?

Night Agency has a team of digital publicists and online marketers who work on getting content to relevant Web partners. Just as PR firms work with journalists and editors on stories, digital marketers work with bloggers, Webmasters and Web sites to match the right content with the correct audience, Paul explained.

“Part of the strategy is to break Web content with influential sites read by other influential sites, which in turn results in the spreading of the content. It is Web etiquette to credit the site that breaks a story, or content — and in turn, the site that breaks the content can benefit from loads and loads of traffic. Thus, a Web site has a lot to gain by picking up and hosting good content for others to see,” Paul noted.

At the lowest level, Paul figures these sites are providing their audience with the kind of thing they want to see — and on the highest level, they too can gain Internet notoriety for covering the best of the Web. He sees the relationship between content producers, and social networking sites/media sharing sites as symbiotic.

“If capitalism is not the Web site’s intention, then they are in it for the glory — in which case, they are really interested in the best the Web has to offer,” Paul argued. “So they are absolutely interested in getting the best content seeded to them.”

All that said, if a particular content batch looks anything like an ad, customers will perceive it as just that. One popular way around this is to create an intermediate, non-branded landing page — the Smirnoff Tea Partay rap video, for instance, drove users to a landing page with www.teapartay.com as the URL, so the advertising content was not immediately apparent.

Others have taken the opposite approach — by creating ads that are obviously ads, but also aim to attract viewers simply for their entertainment value.

“iFilm has added a channel purely for commercials,” Davis noted. “Users of media-sharing sites find entertainment where they choose to — and advertisers need to be entertaining first and push the brand second if they hope to succeed.”

The Stealth Approach

Some digital marketers are looking beyond “commercial” channels with a stealth approach. Sometimes it works. Other times it flops.

Smirnoff Tea Partay, as well as Sega’s Beta-7 campaign, MTV and Motorola’s “Head and Body” push and most recently HP’s “Fingerskillz” are successful examples of covert campaigns, according to Paul. Fingerskillz offers videos of fingers painted like people that go off on a variety of adventures. HP products appear in the background of some of the films.

Betterly points to “banned” Ikea commercials playing on YouTube that offer ironic story lines rather than a hard product pull. The goal of these types of campaigns is to be engaging first in order to get people interested and aware of the stealth campaign.

The value of any stealth campaign is the momentum leading up to the eventual climax — which comes at the point of the reveal, when the brand is ultimately recognized as the one responsible for the campaign. These are becoming harder and harder to pull off, as people become more aware these campaigns exist, Paul said.

Indeed, true stealth communication is usually found out eventually. That’s why Davis advises marketers to be smart, witty, shocking or whatever it might take to be entertaining in the audience’s eyes. He recalls a recent flap over a 15-second YouTube video in which a young woman was depicted easily snapping a Samsung flip phone into two pieces. The video was traced to Motorola, which denied involvement, but later that firm pulled the video from YouTube, he said.

Testing the Waters

Brands are also starting to experiment with online videos and other forums for testing consumer interest in products and brands. Recently, Starwood Hotels built a 3-D representation of a new hotel chain to get feedback from users of the virtual reality video game “Second Life” on its design. Testing of this nature will undoubtedly continue, Davis predicted.

On occasion user-generated video might also present marketing opportunities, though the leveraging is up to the companies involved. Not all firms necessarily know how to do that. Coca-Cola, for example, may have missed a chance to take full advantage of an instance earlier this year when users began posting video on how to make Diet Coke “erupt” by mixing it with Mentos candy.

“You’d have thought Coke would treat the Mentos/Diet Coke videos as a testing ground for how to use the medium and reach consumers. Instead they issued a press release about how they really wanted people to drink the stuff. What’s the difference, as long as they buy it? Contrast their reaction with that of Mentos, who fully embraced the opportunity,” Davis argued.

To Paul, it appears that more than just using Internet videos as testing ground. He sees brands releasing standalone videos on the Web.

“There is a large enough Web audience to penetrate mainstream via the Internet, that brands are getting away [with] not using TV at all,” he said, noting that Mini Cooper, Philips, Norelco, Symantec and others are using the Web as their primary driver versus using the Web as an extension, or “testing ground” for TV.

Dealing With the Drawbacks

Betterly sees media sharing as a smart strategy. Paul doesn’t see any inherent drawbacks. Davis, though, warns digital marketers who leverage these tactics to be prepared for the full range of reactions and actions — from trash-talking comments to videos showing up in environments you couldn’t predict to video being re-mixed and mashed into other forms.

“Brand marketers need to have thought through the potential outcomes, discussed the risks with brand and business owners, and gotten comfortable that just like the guy who buys your vodka might mix it with prune juice, the girl viewing your video might turn it into an anti-alcohol video, or a spring break video. If you collectively can’t deal with it, don’t get involved,” Davis said.

Understanding the Landscape

There are clearly challenges to pulling off a successful media sharing campaign, chiefly understanding the landscape. According to Paul, digital marketers need six elements to succeed: a great strategy, solid creative, terrific execution, quality production capabilities, knowledge of the viral space online, and a smart dedicated marketing team.

A solid creative includes achieving an authentic voice. That can be difficult if you don’t understand the target audience, which is much more diverse than traditional mediums. Still, brief, funny and irreverent seem to be turning heads.

“If users are going to YouTube or iFilm or a Fark to be entertained, you’d better be entertaining. If they’re visiting fan sites for information, you’d better provide good inside information,” Davis said. “This can be challenging to marketers who see this as a quick hit way to use video they’ve already got in the can.

“That just won’t work — you’ve got to respect your audience,” he insisted. Marketers need to understand customers’ own goals for their own Web visits and work within that framework in order for approaches to be effective, he said.

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