In an about-face indicative of uncertain business models and the fight for Internet profits, networks have begun shifting more time and resources toward building uniqueness into their series' Websites. It's a move welcomed by advertisers who covet the specialty, targeted buys of ads linked to popular shows, as opposed to more department store-like aggregate video sites. Ironically, the partners of such sites are driving the change.
“The partners in Hulu recognize that they need to have their own destinations, and they probably consider them to be the primary living space for that content,” says Andy Chapman, executive director of The Exchange at MindShare.
While video clips of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon or The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien might be available on Hulu, the network hope is for diehard fans to click on the shows' dedicated sites to get the full fan experience. Extras might include interactive features such as games and blogs. Browser-based games, which can be created relatively quickly, keep fans on a site for longer periods.
The blogs are updated multiple times per day. Fallon's three-person blog team won an Emmy for their work, which often features takes on pop culture at large and only occasionally discusses the program itself.
For networks, building traffic at in-house sites allows them to sell inventory as part of larger packages to advertisers. Nissan had integration, commercials and online inventory buys on NBC's Heroes.
Beyond deals with on-air advertisers, networks routinely sell packages across their online properties. An advertiser targeting young men or kids could buy ads across a media company's stable of shows, targeting specific demos.
“The more page views, the more uniques, the more video streams are good for business because that is what we monetize in digital, but on top of that, it is really effective marketing,” says Vivi Zigler, president of NBC Universal Digital Entertainment. “We believe it creates a deeper loyalty [to a show] and increases engagement.”
This has hardly been the industry pattern, however. In the early days, TV series Websites “felt more like promotional vehicles,” Chapman says. When more multimedia features were added, the change led to a shift in strategy from programmers, who read the growth of broadband as an opportunity to move content across the Web through aggregators such as Hulu and YouTube. But networks are now reconsidering the communal power of the series home page, a place where fans can congregate and advertisers can target.
“That has been a back-and-forth conundrum for the content producers: What is the happy medium between being able to control that content and creating a primary place for it to live, but also recognizing the fact that the Web is the Web and it was built on this egalitarian sort of mind-set?” Chapman says.
The specialty-site idea is perhaps keenest with children's shows. Games on kid-show sites typically feature a pre-roll ad; this is one of the Web's most popular ad types for marketers.
“About 86% of our audience is online playing games, so that is a huge component to the strategy across our sites,” says Matthew Evans, senior VP of digital at Nickelodeon, who says the network's SpongeBob SquarePants Website puts up a new game every week. “It gives our audience something to come back to.”
The strategy works: The network's SpongeBob site was the most visited site of any television show for the week ending Oct. 10, comprising 7% of all TV Website visits, according to a study from Hitwise. Networks are no doubt taking note—what works for kids may work across the board.