A Method to On-Demand March Madness

Hey there, sports fans. I’ve got a couple questions for you: During March Madness, What if you had the ability to watch whichever game you wanted? What if you could do it anytime you wanted to, even at work?

“What if?” has become “why not?” Even now, you can go to CBS SportsLine.com’s NCAA March Madness on Demand and watch archived games.

This is so great! We’re one step closer to fulfilling one of the Internet’s promises: delivering a valuable, television-like experience on demand, with interactivity. Not to mention the media placement possibilities. The advertising I saw while watching an online NCAA basketball game was great. There were in-stream commercials from brands such as Pontiac, the U.S. Army, and Gateway, each with a corresponding 120 x 600. Many of the brands had basketball-specific creative, further leveraging their presence in this environment.

“The support of the program and the initial feedback [from users and advertisers] has been outstanding,” Bruce Jaret, SportsLine VP of sales, marketing services, and operations, told me. “Everyone seems really happy with the quality of the product.”

At a cost of $9.95, it was a steal. I know, I know… it would be cooler if it were free. But the fact SportsLine has taken such a high-profile event and created on-demand access to it and gets paid for the content is fantastic. (A similar offering is on MLB.com.)

Now, I know this isn’t an earth-shattering event in the history of online advertising. But it is a significant part of our evolution.

We’ve heard for what seems like years now the Internet, TV, and video games are converging into one miraculous set-top box. We’ve heard this so often we’ve lost sight of the fact that day is yet to come.

But that day is closer than you think. The Xbox is as upgradable and hackable as any PC. People dissatisfied with the amount of storage on their TiVos simply add more hard drive space on the sly. Where hackers tread, the general public is sure to follow. Just look at wireless networking. You found it at your workplace. It’s at your local Starbucks. Next? Your home, if it isn’t there already.

We still have plenty of hurdles to overcome on the road to digital convergence (I won’t say “nirvana”). Yes, broadband penetration is reaching adequate levels. But online advertising is still held to a higher accountability standard. It seems that a March-Madness-on-Demand type of buy would only be effective from a branding perspective. Anyone who’s paid for this content is probably a passionate fan of the game. Do you really think he’ll click on anything? Probably not.

But don’t get me wrong. From a branding perspective, this could be a very powerful tool for the same reasons brands want to associate themselves with similar events in the offline world.

Pricing is something we’ll need to address as well. If we expect traditional brands to consider moving portions of their TV budgets online, we have to get to the point where we have the reach and comparable pricing to be taken seriously.

Another way for this type of advertising environment to be taken seriously is to go a step further and deliver a whole lot more interactivity. The next evolution should include:

  • Player stats right within the interface.

  • Community. Let people talk to each other via IM while they watch their favorite teams battle it out.
  • Behind-the-scenes and historical footage. True sports junkies would eat this up.

These innovations alone won’t revolutionize media consumption habits. Don’t expect people to start watching TV programming online instead of on their big screens quite yet. When they do, PC-powered media centers are likely where this will take hold. (Imagine what the Internet plus TiVo plus Xbox plus the biggest screen you can fit in your living room equals.) To play in this arena, we must deliver greater value through exclusive content and increased interactivity.

This is where we’re going, from a media-planning perspective: dynamically targeted video placements based on demographic, geographic, and program-specific parameters. If an 18-to-34-year-old male Internet user from Chicago views this content, we should be able to serve him an ad message specific to him, his region, and his interests. Highly targeted messaging. Kind of like spot television, only better. Imagine the possibilities.

The name of the game (no pun intended) is control. These programs offer users more control and give agencies and advertisers more control through more engaging creative options and increased targeting capabilities.

If your eye is on the future of streaming on-demand content, let me know what you think.

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