A ton has been written about the first seasons of "The Apprentice"; how a number of advertisers linked with the show's producers and Yahoo to create genuine cross-media experiences. We know the on-air/online placements drove scads of traffic to advertisers' sites.
But what kind of results are we talking about? I decided to ask some of the product marketers who rather bravely plunged in earlier this year, integrating their products both with the show and with a palette of online offerings on Yahoo's network and in its applications, such as email and IM.
The results were, in a word, spectacular. But can they be replicated for those original advertisers, or is this brand of heady success a one-shot deal?
Watch This Car Disappear
Pontiac introduced its limited edition Solstice on "The Apprentice." When the episode ended, viewers were pointed to Yahoo for additional information about the vehicle. Pontiac's goal was to sell 1,000 cars in 10 days.
Mark-Hans Richter, Pontiac's director of marketing, was dumbstruck by the results. "A 10-day program was over in 41 minutes for the first 1,000 Solstices. We thought about 10 days was reasonable for a car no one's driven before." Not only did Pontiac make its target before the show even aired on the West Coast, but 4,000 additional cars sold in advance of the launch -- Pontiac's entire first-year production.
"That's $125 million worth of steel that has been moved in about four hours," pointed out Jim Moloshok, Yahoo's just-departed SVP of entertainment. "This shows that online can move big-ticket items. Maybe a CPM-plus-CPA model could be considered by automakers. What percentage would GM be willing to give back as a sales commission?" he mused, adding, "Some people went to Pontiac's site, so we can't take all the credit."
"Going into this you don't know what to expect because you don't have a lot of control," Richter told me. "You're yielding control for potentially more risk, and more reward."
The Non-Virtual Desktop
When show contestants worked for retailer Staples to create an office accessory, dubbed "The Desk Apprentice," viewers were asked to search Yahoo for that term. They landed on the purchase page -- and purchased, to the tune of $525,000 worth of merchandise in two hours. Ultimately, a third of all Staples' units were sold on Yahoo Over a million visitors converted within a one-week timeframe.
"This is pretty unique," Staples' VP of brand programs, Cathy Cusack, admits. "It was 30 minutes of pure talking about Staples. The show editors really did a nice job showcasing Staples. We're actively looking for [other] brand integration opportunities. Do we think we're going to find an opportunity that offers us 30 minutes? No."
Cusack also credits the return on a roadblock campaign on areas of Yahoo, additional banner advertising on the network, and top placement in search engine results. Staples felt confident enough doing that because of an existing relationship with Yahoo and because it had placed ads on "The Apprentice" microsite in earlier seasons.
Intel doesn't sell to consumers, but it does plenty of consumer marketing. Sean Connelly, the company's worldwide advertising manager, says the brand research conducted by Dynamic Logic and others was positive following his company's promotion on "The Apprentice."
The online promotion correlated with ads run on air and in Yahoo's bonus video clips of show footage, as well as elsewhere on the portal. In an "Apprentice" episode featuring wearable technology, Yahoo used its end-of-show buffer to drive consumers to the show Web site for Intel-themed information. Intel exclusively sponsored a weekly online viewer poll, and Yahoo linked from the show's home page to an Intel/Apprentice-branded sweepstakes. Finally, Intel's Wi-Fi hotspots were integrated into Yahoo Maps of the show's locations.
"We saw higher interaction rates and increased traffic to intel.com," Connelly told me. Not as sexy as selling thousands of cars perhaps, but that wasn't the goal. Intel's back this season in a much smaller capacity, sponsoring the weekly show poll.
Other advertisers have moved a ton of product by leveraging the show's cross-media might. Hanes sold out a line of T-shirts at Walmart.com in less than two days after they were featured on the show, on the Yahoo Shopping home page, in the Yahoo "Apprentice" IMVironment, and in the "Apprentice" Product Showcase.
Nescafé was sipped in an on-air episode. Online, Yahoo featured it in search, on the show's microsite, and in branded content, including video clips, online polls, and recipes. In four days, 230,000 free samples were requested from Yahoo alone.
"A lot of our sponsors underestimate the demand, underestimate the power of promoting a product on a reality show. There's always an exception, but in the vast majority of cases it's exceptional," says Conrad Riggs, an executive at Mark Burnett Productions, which produces the TV show.
That Was Then. This Is Now?
"The Apprentice" lost nearly 6 million viewers this season, and "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart," for which Yahoo accorded full "Apprentice" treatment, has ratings so dismal the show was exiled to a later timeslot.
So as Yahoo concocts new, ingenious ways to integrate its cross-media advertisers into every conceivable aspect of the portal (currently, there are "Apprentice" ad opportunities in video, games, IM, search, shopping, microsites, email, polls, contests, and mobile -- did I leave anything out?), the next challenge may be to find the next wave of on-air advertainment to ride. No wonder the company's staffed, from the top down, with Hollywood insiders such as Terry Semel and Lloyd Braun.
"What will be around is more and more of this," Moloshok avowed. "We'll be able to deliver real money to producers. They'll be able to start producing second tiers of programming and additional material."
On the advertiser side, spectacular results aren't necessarily sustainable or replicable. As Staples' Cusack said, it's going to be a long wait until her brand gets another 30 straight minutes of primetime TV. All the marketers I spoke with say they're seeking similar opportunities, but "The Apprentice" isn't a well you can return to. Moloshok did tell me some corporate parents are considering the show for other brands after one has had a successful outing.
"We're able to almost talk in shorthand because they're familiar with the steps," he said. "When we started doing it, no one was doing what we're doing."
There are steps aplenty: the complex buys (both on-air and online), creative, and, often, creation of elaborate backend systems to keep up with fulfillment and lead-gen.
Got any predictions about the shape reality -- and advertainment -- will take next season? Please let me know!
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Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.
March 19, 2014