Power to the Viewer
Networks ask viewers to get creative. But what happens when they don't color inside the lines?
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/26/2006 7:00:00 PM
Networks like to talk about creating relationships with their viewers. But, as with any relationship, it's all about the balance of power. In their efforts to engage viewers by appealing to their creative impulses, networks have been enlisting them online to contribute promotional spots for their favorite programs. But when it comes to asking viewers to help sell their shows, networks are still struggling to find the right balance between empowering viewers and protecting their own content and brand integrity.
After all, no network wants to expose itself to what Chevrolet did last spring, when the automaker invited consumers to mix music and video clips with their own slogans to create Web promos for its Tahoe sport utility vehicle. The ensuing barrage of anti-SUV ads lamenting global warming became an instant cautionary tale for networks.
The networks' solution to rampant consumer creativity has been to establish strict boundaries. The CW network has created a CW Lab Website, where viewers can choose from a selection of video and music clips to plug into a rudimentary AV editor to create a CW promo spot. The site has clocked some 10,000 entries since it launched in September, and the network plans to air some of the spots early next year.
CW Executive VP of Marketing Rick Haskins calls the promos a "really fun way of getting our viewers involved." But while fans of Veronica Mars or Smallville may agree, many of the young, tech-savvy viewers The CW targets could bridle at the constraints—much like fans of NBC's The Office.
After establishing the first network-branded channel on video-sharing site YouTube, NBC invited viewers to post original Office promos; it aired the winner over the summer.
But the contest, which allowed contributors to use only the show's theme song, didn't satisfy the hundreds of fans who posted "mash-ups" using copyrighted clips from the show.
The aim of the contest was to "create the sense that viewers liked the show and were willing to create promos for it," says NBC Universal TV Group Marketing Chief John Miller. "You do want to try to create a relationship with the viewer. It's all about engagement."
Joseph Jaffe, author of the book Life After the 30-Second Spot and president of marketing consulting agency Crayon, advises networks on consumer engagement and says marketers too often try to "garden-create" consumer-generated content.
"When marketers, agencies, publishers or networks try to force it or control it or manipulate it or limit it, that's when it becomes quite stale or ineffective," Jaffe says. "Consumers want their 15 streams of fame. A lot of these people are producing content in the hopes that a television network will hire them and put them on TV."
Viewers as partners
Current, the young cable network founded on the premise of democratizing media, devotes some 30% of its programming to viewer-created content and approaches viewers as creative partners. Since February, it has solicited viewer-created ad messages (V-CAMs), not only for the channel itself but for five advertisers, including Toyota and Sony. The winning spots not only make it on TV, but Current pays for them: $250 for network promos, $1,000 for sponsors.
The prospect of payment likely had much to do with the fact that none of the 700 V-CAMs submitted to Current were negative in tone or disparaged the advertiser. But while other networks may not be looking to partner with viewers to such an extent, they can learn something from Current about the importance of maintaining credibility with their audience.
If viewers sense that they're being pandered to by a network hoping to cloak itself in the latest user-generated fashion, they'll likely resent it. Says NBC's Miller, "When you post on YouTube, you don't want to look like Mr. Corporate."
In the end, networks have to learn to let go and embrace the risk to their brands if they want to resonate with viewers and earn their respect.
Indeed, even Chevy is taking the user-generated plunge again: It's one of several advertisers planning to field consumer-created content in their multimillion-dollar spots during this season's Super Bowl.
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