How Brand Utility Changes the Ad Model Online

When it comes to advertising, I’ve always been a bit of an idealist. Despite all the noise and clutter of messages, surely we can use advertising to do something valuable for people. The idealist in me wants to believe the Internet/digital revolution is an opportunity for marketers to start doing useful things for people with advertising dollars, not just shout at them.

By “do,” I don’t just mean improving products and services. I’m thinking “brand utilities,” the concept of a brand being useful. I confess, this advertising buzz phrase really excites me, especially the role brand utilities can play within online entertainment.

The digital era is irreversibly changing our viewing habits. We want entertainment uninterrupted, on demand, and through the device, player, or user experience of our choice. On top of that, we often want to participate in and even be part of the entertainment (this desire to participate is nothing new really; it’s called “folk culture”!).

This is where the brand as a utility fits in. Instead of funding online entertainment by interrupting it with messaging (or force-fitting it with product placement), marketers can start doing things that enrich the audience’s entertainment. Brands can provide, enhance, and develop Web 2.0 (define) technologies that accompany entertainment as part of our evolving viewing habits.

How do we support entertainment with brand utilities? Luckily for advertisers, Web 2.0 technologies are cheaper and more accessible than ever. Marketers must learn about the existing and emerging technologies available to them. Digital agencies that have in-house creative technologists, media planners, and interactive producers are in a great place to start exploring. But the real key is to rewire how we think about advertising within the realm of entertainment.

Web 2.0 Options

One way to become useful to people is to allow interactivity within the entertainment.

Panache, VideoClix, and Entertainment Media Works are three companies that offer ways to automate and manage user-initiated linking and interactivity within or surrounding the video player. While direct-to-retail with product linking is one facet of this technology, the creative possibilities don’t stop there. These tools can bring dimension to storytelling within entertainment. Look at these technologies as a starting point. Then partner with these companies to develop custom experiences that meet your brand and audience needs.

Second, more than ever people are looking for ways to bridge their digital experiences. And brands are in a place now where they can facilitate and enhance valuable connection for an audience. If you’re a marketer and haven’t heard the word “widget” in the last six months, you probably don’t work in the digital space. Facebook, Google OpenSocial, Netvibes, Adobe Air, Yahoo, AOL, and Apple’s iPhone all offer resources and tools for developers to create new applications that help span the digital divide between social networks, desktops, blogs, and even phones. There’s a huge untapped potential for brands to develop and own these applications. And making entertainment programming the center of these applications to drive social interaction across networks is a great place to start.

Think Like a Start-up

Innovation is the key to creating successful brand utilities. That means agencies must be as curious as a start-up, must continuously evaluate the digital landscape, and must understand how people navigate the blur of possibilities. It also means investing money and time upfront to demo, beta, and test before applying the application to a brand initiative.

Accompanying video content with brand utilities fundamentally changes the advertising model online. As an advertiser, you’re still supporting the entertainment, but you also have a role in creating the wider entertainment and information experience. Your media dollars become production, distribution, and syndication dollars. It’s certainly no longer about creating a microsite and driving traffic to your site with a supporting banner ad campaign. It’s about partnering with entertainment providers and content creators upfront and codeveloping a plan that equally benefits both parties — plus the viewer! Brands get to be a part of the storytelling process and offer useful tools to their audience, and content creators get paid for doing what they love.

On the other hand, if we invade video content with bugs and tickers that don’t enrich the experience or use widgets to bombard users with irrelevant noise, all we’ll have done is extend interruption advertising into new formats to be ignored all over again by the people we’re trying to impress.

Do it right and people get their entertainment delivered without interruptions and enriched with additional content and utility. They also leave with a warm, fuzzy feeling about the brand utilities that enhanced their viewing experience. At the end of the day, they’ll be much more likely to talk about what you do for them than what message you send to them.

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