What was fascinating about this DEMXPO session - ostensibly about how online content has re-emerged after the Internet bubble of a few years ago - was that each of the speakers kept coming back to user-generated content...
Chris Marlowe of the The Hollywood Reporter moderated this lively panel on original online programming, joined by these panelists:
- David Carson, Heavy
- Erik Flannigan, America Online
- Gregg Spiridellis, JibJab
- Scott Roesch, AtomFilms
There were a few dynamics brought up by the panel that highlighted the differences between broadcast and online content. (Notably, no one could provided a reason that online content is taking off now, relative to many spectacular failures during the bubble.)
The producers at Heavy believe that online content is attracting young, male viewers away from TV because online producers can better identify with these viewers. On TV, the young, male viewer is just a demographic to the producer; online, the producer still tends to be young and male, and he is making content that he likes.
AOL is starting to do original programming by taking lessons from television production. Specifically, by trying to find areas where AOL users aren't satisfied by current TV programming. For example - on movie junkets, interviewers always come away with the same shoot; how can AOL go to the same junket day, get the same 5 minutes, but then come away with content that is unique to AOL?
From this point on, everything was about user-generated content. Heavy started off with a great example - they took the creepy King mask from the Burger King ads, and gave one to each of 25 user-producers that were generating good content. The user-producers treated the masks as pop icons in shorts, and by early December the spots had been downloaded 4 million times. Though these spots are strange, they became great brand messaging - and promoted the Burger King brand more effectively than a 30-second BK spot pushed out on broadcast television.
JibJab took another approach to user influence by using the Internet for casting calls. JibJab producers collected head shots and info, then allowed site visitors to vote on who should be cast. This online form of reality TV became part of the fun, and helped to build up a hard-core group of viewers. Almost all of JibJab's 160,000 newsletter subscribers participated, and most also invited their friends to participate.
Even AOL is thinking proactively about user-generated content. For example, audience members bring their camera-enabled cell phones to a concert. Since these images are being captured anyway, can you find a band to formally bless the images' use? Can you assemble and distribute a full-length concert video that is made by compiling those many audience clips?
Machinima (creating scripts that go along with character actions in video games) has been around for a while, but is recently popular. Heavy has 10 new shows based on these video games - think Adult Swim meets XBox. As the programs become very popular downloads, buzz is created around new games.
AtomFilms recently collected almost 300 submissions for a short project with Intel. Each of these four-minute, live action videos had to fit the broad theme of 'What can you do with a magic wand?' (Note: Atom just finished its first round of judging, so no need to run for your camcorder.) Since Atom is well-known in the film and animation community, it was relatively easy for them to market a program that drove amateur-produced content. Atom already receives thousands of entries for their annual Star Wars fan film contest, which is sponsored by LucasFilm. This contest may be a thinly veiled marketing vehicle, but Star Wars fans are unabashedly thrilled by the opportunity to have George Lucas actually see and approve of their work.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the solicitation of user content has impacted the way that artists view commercial support. Rather than shunning the concept of being a sellout, artists are being receptive to sponsorships or other commercial support. At AOL, this shift is attitude has been essential to the success of original programming. People are tired of seeing the same 15-second ad before the original online content they've clicked to, so AOL needs to create a greater inventory of online video advertising. This implies a need for creative that is separate from the creative on TV.
The advertisers are close behind on all of this new content. Not just because of the higher levels of engagement, but also because marketers can see far more than just Nielsen numbers when attempting to gauge reach and effectiveness. Even more than you'd guess based upon Media Metrix and blog tracking. One of the cooler tricks exposed during the panel was the technique of inserting calls at various points into content. As the calls come through, online content producers can see exactly how far into the videostream that people are watching. This feedback lets the producer get an idea of what works - and what doesn't - for the audience.
There's a real shortage of content creators who think about the online medium first, and who don't bring their TV paradigms to the table. Since there isn't a good way for these creative producers to get paid, they've had a disincentive to bring their talent and experience online. This leaves the door open for the user-producer to step up with original web entertainment, and with any luck, will transform our collective creative experience.