Experimental video project scores far more viewers than big-budget series.
AT&T experienced the potential of branded web video in the last two months and is still digesting the unexpected results.
The company experimented with a crowdsourced boy-meets-girl online series aimed at Asian-American youth. The weekly show, "Away We Happened," grabbed six million viewers on YouTube over six weeks, ending June 29.
In contrast, AT&T also ran a big-budget, general market online adventure series - structured much like a traditional TV series - during the same timeframe. That project, called "Daybreak," had a YouTube viewership of about 160,000 people, including supplemental videos. That's less than 3 percent of the audience of the niche, crowdsourced project.
The five-part "Daybreak" story was the work of ad agency BBDO and Tim Kring, producer of TV's "Heroes." The characters use AT&T's innovation to uncover and undermine conspiracies and to save the world. High production values and mysterious, fast-paced chase scenes and shootings are tapped to keep the story compelling. "Daybreak" also combined paid integrations and e-commerce.
It unfolded through 10-minute online films, websites, and a smartphone app, each exploring different facets of a "complex character journey," per AT&T.
The six-week crowdsourced project had more modest beginnings. It was crafted by Asian-American agency interTrend Communications and Wong Fu Productions. The storyline follows two young actors in ordinary settings coming together because of a lost suitcase. The first weekly episode set the stage and after that the audience was called on to suggest and vote on new plot twists via social media. Producers then took about two days to create the next seven-minute episode reflecting those choices. The finale was 14 minutes. Within five weeks fans submitted more than 4,700 story ideas on Facebook, according to AT&T.
The series' goal was to improve brand affinity among the target by highlighting the everyday use of AT&T technology by characters that users can relate to, said Laura Hernandez, AT&T executive director of diversity marketing. The company turned to crowdsourcing because research showed the target audience is highly engaged in social media and includes avid followers of Asian YouTube celebrities. To build buzz, the project sought out and hired "social media influencers in the entertainment world with established communications channels with our audience," said Hernandez. Wong Fu Productions has more than 1.1 million subscribers to its YouTube channel and each of the cast members has a large social media following among Asian youth, she said.
But an ambitious idea is one thing. Execution on a small budget is another. InterTrend had only two months from idea to launch. The biggest challenge was organizing the workflow in advance of the first episode, said Jon Yokogawa, managing director at the agency. "A process had to be set up so things could happen really fast: posting the video, collecting the comments, tallying the votes, writing it, filming it, getting the client's legal and product people to approve it." A key requirement was getting several AT&T departments to agree to work together quickly to get the fan-supplied content approved, he noted. "To pull this off, everyone involved had to be available 24 hours a day during the six-week run."
While promos for the series were aimed at Asian Americans, once the series began and went viral, there was no way to control who viewed it or who engaged in the story-telling, admitted Hernandez. But in this case the lack of control proved to be a benefit. The high response rates and improvements in brand affinity from the campaign far exceeded AT&T's goals, according to the agency.
"This project gives [advertisers] new insight on how to use viral video across segments," said Yokogawa. "Consumers' attraction to something that is new and interesting, and that they can get personally involved in is universal," he said.
AT&T is considering how the popularity of the crowdsourced series might impact its mainstream web video efforts in the future. Hernandez noted that the two recent series were different in that "Away We Happened" highlights how customers can interact with new AT&T products while "Daybreak" combined entertainment with paid integrations, branded content, and commerce. But they are similar in that they both "encourage conversation around how AT&T technology brings value to customers' daily lives," she said.
Rather than treating crowdsourced storytelling and product e-commerce as separate forms of online marketing, it seems like the two approaches "are becoming closer," she said. These projects show that "people want to be enriched through the products they buy as well as the entertainment they enjoy."
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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.
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