AOL Sales Head: NewFronts Highlight Original Content at Scale

janet-balis-aolThe nation’s five biggest digital media companies – AOL, Google/YouTube, Hulu, Microsoft Advertising and Yahoo – are joining Digitas in an ambitious effort to get advertisers excited about their original video content. The Digital Content NewFronts, to be held from April 19 to May 2, 2012, will let each independently make its pitch to advertisers and agencies.

As head of sales strategy, marketing and partnerships, Janet Balis is on the front lines of AOL’s NewFront push. She leads AOL Advertising’s products and services group, charged with wooing brand advertisers while developing creative and strategic partnerships. She joined the newly formed AOL Media Networks in 2004, leaving to become EVP for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She returned to AOL in 2011.

She wouldn’t reveal what AOL will present at its NewFront, but she gave ClickZ insights into AOL’s video content strategy and how this will play into it.  She also discussed teh company’s plans for a Huffington Post Streaming Network with live and archived streaming content.

ClickZ: What is the point of the Digital Content NewFronts?

Janet Balis: We’re trying to shine a light on the combination of original content built for the internet and our powerful distribution. We have wonderful content being produced every day. When you marry it to our scale, it becomes incredibly exciting.

CZ: How are the NewFronts like the TV upfronts, and how are they different?

JB: The television industry upfronts are built on a model of inventory scarcity – and it’s been very successful for them. The digital industry is not characterized by scarcity of inventory. There is a scarcity of amazing ideas married to powerful scale. We are focusing on the programming itself and ideas that can integrate brands and push their objectives forward. The idea is only as good as the volume.

CZ: What kinds of integration will you offer?

JB: We will have a full range of programs, and many will include opportunities for deep integration into the experience itself that moves beyond product placement or brand mentions to thoughtful, integrated approaches where we try to bring to life the brand’s equity and make them a true part of the story.

CZ: Sounds interesting. Can you give an example?

JB: The Huffington Post Streaming Network will be streaming an experiential, never-ending talk show using the Huffington Post as a real-time script. While partners are open to the idea of having a brand sponsor a segment or name a part of the set, it’s more exciting to think about the message the brand is trying to convey. For example, if there’s a message about the efficiency of a product or service relevant to a consumer’s life, we might have a speed round of debate. It’s a metaphorical use of the brand equity. Or, there is a franchise in one show called Defend Your Comment, where two users commenting on a web page can do it in real time, going head to head. If a brand is about standing up for yourself, that might be a great opportunity to have the title ownership.

CZ: Are the NewFronts an attempt to command TV-rate ad dollars for digital content?

JB: It’s about continuing to keep digital front and center in the marketplace. I don’t see this as targeting television dollars. Television will remain a vital part of the media landscape. But digital continues to be underserved. This is a way to focus people on things that are really exciting. Original content is a fantastic rallying point.

CZ:Last October, AOL announced 15 original web series. Any updates on those?

JB: We’re partnering with Michael Eisner’s Vuguru to launch programming targeting women. The first three are in market, launching this year: Little Women, Big Cars; Fetching, about a woman who decides to open a pet shop; and Greetings from Home, about families separated by deployment.

Our approach to original video programming is not trying to take linear programming and port it over to the digital environment. TV-style production values are certainly there, but we’re trying to dimensionalize characters and storylines across AOL. For example, maybe the carpooling mom in Little Women, Big Cars is making kid-friendly recipe picks inside Kitchen Daily, our cooking website.

CZ:What do you say to criticism that digital video is becoming more like broadcast TV, instead of exploiting its strengths, including the ability for advertisers to optimize campaigns in real time?

JB: Our approach to video reflects the reality that brands at certain moments would like to buy video at scale. Our approach is far more focused on building highly integrated ideas with a video-centric approach but a variety of different story-telling techniques. Video is one of many ways we can tell the story of the brand, and we believe in using them all seamlessly.

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