After a year of retreat from the Web, Discovery Networks has embraced the medium once more, this time with a vengeance. With the launch of 13 blitz campaigns in late 2002, the company has prioritized the Internet in its ad strategy like never before, while pushing the limits of Flash.
Discovery became familiar with the Internet early on, building a robust Web site and launching several interactive campaigns through itraffic, the online marketing and advertising division of Agency.com. Discovery worked with itraffic on various online campaigns beginning in late 1999, but the company later cooled to the medium somewhat.
Beginning early in 2002, itraffic began pushing the educational TV network to turn its attention back to the Web.
“Discovery kind of went dark in 2001, as many companies were pulling back from the Internet,” said Jay Altschuler, itraffic’s media director. “We all agreed to get them back online last year.”
The outreach paid off. About midway through 2002, Discovery Networks tapped itraffic to develop 13 online ad campaigns. Discovery wanted the ads to promote various programs on Discovery’s group of stations, including the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel (TLC), Animal Planet and Discovery Kids.
The main goal was to increase viewership of these programs by reaching out to Web users who may still be unaware of them. However, Discover professed other motives to get back online, such as to associate its brand with a young, hip audience and to create an immersive branding experience for Internet users.
“Obviously, growing viewers was number one,” according to itraffic VP and creative director Blair Shapiro. “But it was also important to use the medium and interactivity to bring out the experience of each show — to be as in-your-face as possible.”
This couldn’t be accomplished with crude banner units. Stephanie Lowet, VP of media planning and partnerships for Discovery, put it succinctly: “For our current promotions, we want continually innovative ads to turn online browsers into television viewers.”
“Discovery has such rich content,” said Shapiro. “The challenge was to bring that to life online. With Discovery, we never start a project thinking, ‘Ok, we’ll just do a couple banners.’ It’s crucial to push the envelope, to find something unique about each show and tease that out in the creative units.”
As is often the case, Flash answered the call for innovation. For each campaign, itraffic drew on its own expertise with an array of dynamic Flash features, applying this knowledge to banners, skyscrapers, and EyeBlaster formats. Among the first of these campaigns was a show called “Celebrity SharkWeek,” which ran on the Discovery Channel from August 11 to August 16. SharkWeek, an annual series of specials on sharks, is in its 13th annual incarnation. This time the Channel introduced a celebrity component, adding a pinch of star power to the perennial predator appeal of the ocean’s toothiest residents.
The resulting banner, pop-up, and EyeBlaster creatives used simple Flash animation as well as the advanced action scripting and video capabilities included in Flash MX. In one pop-up, for instance, a user can play numerous videos within the ad, including footage of celebrity guests such as actress Julie Bowen and Brian McKnight preparing to get into the water with sharks.
“Oh my god, the shark is right over there!” shouts Bowen, standing in a boat in her wet suit. It’s a double whammy of reality TV and celebrity voyeurism that practically guarantees people will want to tune in.
“The whole idea is getting up close and personal with sharks,” Shapiro said. “We incorporated the young celebrities working with sharks into the pop-ups. [For the non-video stuff], we had the shark appear to bang against the screen and shake the banner, making you feel a part of the scene.”
Over the course of the 13 campaigns, itraffic spiced its creative with interactive extras, designed to increase immersion and fun. Several interesting vendor relationships resulted. One of these was with AmericanGreetings.com, which itraffic tapped to support a September campaign for the TLC show, “Trading Spaces,” a reality-based program that pits neighbor against neighbor in a battle of home design.
Using EyeBlaster, the Flash promotion lets users decorate their own virtual rooms within the banner and to then forward the room to email recipients using AmericanGreetings.com’s tool. The interface allows surfers to control a surprisingly large number of variables — such as wall pattern, accessories, and furniture placement — all within a 768×90 Banner. Shapiro thinks this variety of choices may have resulted in the record forward rates AmercianGreetings.com reported following the campaign.
Another unique vendor partnership involved a campaign for a TV special called “Expedition: Bismarck” about the search for the sunken British ship of the same name. The program, created by “Titanic” director James Cameron, aired on the Discovery Channel in December. To help remind people to see the show, itraffic partnered with music technology provider mH20, which provided tools that let users sign up to get a pre-recorded phone call from James Cameron on the day of the broadcast.
The “Expedition: Bismarck” campaign was unique for more reasons than one. It also happened to be the second of Salon’s “Ultramercials,” a new approach to online advertising that gives Web users access to premium content when they consent to view an ad (usually lengthy) in its entirety.
Trying the new ad unit shows how committed itraffic and Discovery are to building campaigns that are beyond the norm, not only on the creative level, but also in terms of media strategy and implementation. In fact, itraffic combines creative and media in one team, not two, operating on the theory that neither discipline exists in a vacuum.
The same chaotic diversity itraffic practiced in its creative work for Discovery carried over to the media buy as well. Because each campaign promoted a different TV show, itraffic’s media director Jay Altschuler dealt with many different contacts at Discovery. Additionally, each show had its own demographic, adding to the polymorphous quality of the media planning process.
Altschuler noted, too, that the campaigns were all very short, lasting only a few days.
“Most of the campaigns ran in three to five day bursts,” he said. “We usually centered the majority of our advertising two to three days prior to the show, each day would see an increase in the campaign’s presence, culminating on the day of the show.”
This added to the pressure of making the right media plan before the launch, there wouldn’t be time for much post-launch campaign optimization. Other measurement tools were used, of course. Dynamic Logic studies played a big part in these campaigns.
“The end goal is always ratings, but we use Dynamic Logic to measure brand awareness, message recall, and viewing intent,” Altschuler said. “Based on those studies, we’ve learned which sites, what sizes, what messages and what placements tend to garner the best metrics.”
These 13 little campaigns did more than revitalize Discovery’s presence on the Web, though that was quite a coup for itraffic and its parent Agency.com. They also represent an industry-wide expansion of the video, action scripting and other complex applications of Flash — the beginning of the end of the “cartoon” association we all have with the vector-based software. This expansion of Macromedia’s flagship product has already changed the rich media landscape, a trend itraffic is betting will continue.