Close-Up: Live issue - Should brands invest in online drama?

Advertisers are turning to online series to get their branded messages across, Kate Nettleton writes.

Bree - aka lonelygirl15 - was an internet sensation, and a dream come true for advertisers finding it hard to reach the teenage market. Her YouTube tales of teenage angst captivated millions of viewers for every three-minute "webisode" posted.

But what viewers didn't realise, at least at first, was that Bree was Jessica Rose, a 19-year-old actress who came from New Zealand. Lonelygirl15 was the creation of an American production company, and her tales had been infused with subtle brand messages from the likes of Hershey's.

Increasingly, brands in the UK are seeking to exploit this medium of online branded content. The latest is Katemodern, commissioned by the social networking site Bebo and produced by the creators of Lonelygirl15. The series, about a troubled young East London art student, launched last month, will feature product tie-ins from Orange, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft.

Ford has also made steps into the genre, producing an online comedy called Where are the Joneses?. The episodes follow a woman who discovers her father was a sperm donor and who tries to find her siblings.

So why are brands getting involved? John Banks, the executive chairman of Imagination, the agency behind Where are the Joneses?, explains: "We take the brand essence of Ford, understand its brand values, then take that brief to the writers, so that the stories are in tune with the client."

Despite enlisting the help of Babycow, the television production company founded by the comedian Steve Coogan, the series is way off matching the audience Lonelygirl15 achieved last year, with the first episode clocking up just 4,846 views on YouTube.

Damian Ferrar, the director of digital communications at Imagination, argues the real test for the success of online branded content is how often consumers engage with the medium by contributing to the story, or by posting blogs.

While viewer demand for online drama remains patchy, these online soaps are far cheaper than securing a 30-second ad spot in, for instance, Coronation Street. Furthermore, they allow clients to use product placement and sponsorship to ensure their brand messages are seen.

But, as Rob Forshaw, a founding partner of Grand Union, argues, to achieve online success, brands have to create top-quality content. "If you look at other types of product placement such as that in the James Bond films, people are not distracted by it, but accepting of it, because of the content quality," he says. Perhaps this is why production companies, with their experience in making episodic drama, and not agencies, are creating the majority of online drama today.

There is growing competition too, from broadcasters who are opening their content to online viewers. But Ferrar believes the inherent involvement in online soaps such as Katemodern gives the medium an edge over other online programming content such as 4oD and the BBCi player, which simply allow viewers to watch archive material.

Another challenge is how overt to be with the brand messaging.

Ford has put one of its cars in every episode of Where are the Joneses?, and the series also has a "Sponsored by Ford" logo at the end. Arguably, by doing this, Ford forgoes credibility in the medium, and loses the trust of the consumer.

But, as Nick Stewart, the head of digital strategy at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, says: "All the marketers said when Lonelygirl15 viewers found out the wool had been pulled over their eyes they'd pull away, but it didn't happen. If it's good entertainment, you'll get an audience."

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DIGITAL CHIEF - Rob Forshaw, founding partner, Grand Union

"It's dependent on the quality of the content, because obviously the whole premise of a soap, whether it's a mini or long one, is that it is entertaining. It will only serve the advertisers well as long as the content is compelling. If it isn't, it will only be an inferior version.

"When no-one knows who the advertiser is, a level of trust is developed, but when the hoax is revealed, the problem is the extent to which that trust is lost, and if it is then sustainable as a method of advertising.

"You really need a strong central content idea; if you don't have that, then it just becomes a shortlived experiment."

DIGITAL STRATEGIST - Nick Stewart, head of digital strategy, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

"Soaps such as Lonelygirl15 and Katemodern are telling stories in a way that isn't linear, so there is a myriad of opportunities for consumers to get involved and shape the narrative.

"From an advertiser's perspective, you've got an audience, which is more engaged because it is able to take part.

"You've really got to weave the brand into the story and make it part of the narrative.

"But creating entertainment content is best left to the experts. Agencies are good at working out what's compelling for 60 seconds, but they haven't worked out what's going to be compelling in an online TV show."

ONLINE CONTENT PRODUCER - John Banks, executive chairman, Imagination

"Nobody knows yet, and ours (Where are the Joneses?) is a test to learn about how it works. The indications are very interesting. It's allowing us to develop relationships with consumers outside the normal channels.

"My instinct is that it is more effective if you are less overt with a brand message. If the story fits the brand personality, that's when it gets more powerful. People take on those messages without necessarily associating them with the brand.

"The 30-second ad is not going to die. But sometimes the best way of communicating isn't necessarily the 30-second TV commercial."

CLIENT - Mark Simpson, director of marketing communications, Ford

"Increasingly, consumers are expecting to participate as creators in their chosen media space. We have observed with interest the growth in web 2.0 services, and as a brand, we were looking for ways to engage in consumer-generated content.

"The web offers a rich environment for innovative ways in which brands can engage with consumers on their (consumers') terms. So, for Ford, the medium is a natural fit with our brand communications strategy.

"And it definitely helps to have a production company overseeing the creative."