In 2006, Lonelygirl15 was the great breakthrough web drama. It was the first series that an ordinary member of the public might have heard about due to the phenomenal viral success surrounding the question, 'is Bree real or not?' When Bebo commissioned Kate Modern from the same team, funding it with brand sponsorship and product integration and declaring massive viewing figures it seemed that the web finally offered a viable alternative to TV as a place to get drama made. I had just produced and directed Wannabes, a web drama for the BBC which launched in January 2007 and was seeking funding for a new format called Together Alone, part global talent quest, part web drama, an idea that merged user-generated-content with the the quality control of conventional drama. Kate Modern at Bebo and Prom Queen and Room Mates at MySpace offered the tantalising possibility that new channels and new business models were emerging.
In 2007, Bebo, a social network for teenagers, had over 11 million monthly visitors, was bigger than Facebook in the UK and had only just been overtaken by them globally. Founder Michael Birch was devoting his entire time to selling the network at a price tag of one billion dollars while chief executive Joanna Shields ran a text book PR campaign keeping Bebo in the press on an almost daily basis. Their home grown content like Kate Modern, Gap Year and Sofia's Diary and their success at attracting big paying sponsors and large audiences was intrinsic to the perceived value of the network.
Brands including Microsoft, Procter & Gamble and Orange were said to have paid up to £250,000 to have their names integrated into the Kate Modern storyline. Bebo claimed that the first season of Kate Modern had 30.46 million video views, averaging over 200k views per webisode.
Despite the optimism during 2007/8 that sponsor funded web drama was economically viable our fund raising experience was a difficult one. We approached Bebo and MySpace who rejected the idea immediately. They were each commissioning just one or two series a year and they were looking for something exciting yet conservative, attractive to both sponsors and viewers. We approached MTV who were looking to make their first web drama and Universal who had just invested a large amount in making The Secret World of Sam King and naturally the BBC and C4. Once we realised that none of the existing or emergent channels were going to take our exciting yet not at all conservative series we decided to go it alone. Would it be possible to emulate the Bebo model and deliver branded entertainment to the web millions?
We partnered with two agencies. DBM Pulse, an ad sales agency, introduced us to many ad agencies all of which were looking for new ways to deliver brand messages to online audiences. The Alternative, who describe themselves as an engagement agency, introduced us to people at Nokia, the COI, Paramount, Disney and others. Our first issue was how to guarantee audience numbers. We were very quickly able to assemble our own network who would distribute the series by approaching video sharing sites and social networks that had aspirations to creating original content, but not the financial muscle to do it alone. We gathered expressions of interest and agreements for home page promotion from Daily Motion (1.5m monthly uniques UK), Piczo (1.5m), BoreMe (1m) and On Campus (200k). We had some interest from Virgin Media who had short daily slots on Living that would suit our series. Together our network represented 4.5 million monthly unique visitors in the UK and 50 million worldwide.
Frustratingly all the agencies we spoke to, despite representing global brands were only interested in the UK. The 45 million potential viewers elsewhere in the world were of no interest because the agencies charged and were paid only on results in the UK. Still the UK numbers weren't working any magic and we couldn't tell why. All the agency websites were talking about depth of engagement and we were passionate about how any brand supporting the series would be facilitating the whole experience for the audience. Viewers would associate the brand with this funny, innovative and participatory experience. But in the room, all the talk was of CPM (the cost per thousand views of any advertising material) and despite our equivalent audience numbers and our halving, then thirding whatever Bebo was asking for, our CPM was always higher.
No-one was able or willing to explain the real issue until I found a blog post by Nate Elliott
that revealed the truth about how sponsored content was being sold online. He wrote: "Instead of prices based on the sponsored pages, then, they effectively give away the sponsored pages for free and price the deals based on the banners (and other ad units) that drive users to those sponsored pages. The advertiser who buys a sponsorship may be buying ‘engagement,’ but they’re paying for banners – and so are helping the social networks reach their goal of selling more inventory directly."
We then got hold of Bebo's price list from December '08 and saw that they were charging £25k for 97 million impressions. Based on those numbers a sponsor giving £250,000 would receive approximately one billion impressions. This would be banners, mpu's, page skins, homepage spotlights and so on. This methodology and the colossal scale of the numbers were confirmed to me by a Bebo exec. It was at this point we gave up with our network, our series and our dreams of a sponsor funded web drama made outside one of the web networks. Our network could deliver viewers in large numbers, it could deliver brand integration into plot lines and sponsorship on the episode pages but we didn't have any access to any of the other advertising inventory of our network partners. This meant we could never deliver these silly numbers of impressions.
It was then, and still is now, commonly accepted that banner ads don't work, yet here were agencies and brands willing to forget that and ignore any concept of engagement in exchange for huge numbers. No wonder the house of cards collapsed. We were hearing reports that brands that went in early on Kate Modern at the full rate had been sorely disappointed with results.
Bebo was sold in March 2008 to AOL for $850 m (£417 m). Soon after that the commissioning of original series ceased when it was revealed that adequate sponsorship funding could not be guaranteed. Up-front funding of these series had been a sound investment, now it was no longer prudent; very different from the headline grabbing impression of ground breaking success leading up to the sale.
So what does this mean for sponsor funded original web programming? There are two possible views. Getting large audiences for web drama is difficult. Bebo was claiming 200k views per episode, but most of these were obtained by embedding episodes all over the Bebo site and having them auto start. This is why networks like Bebo started selling good old fashioned logo flashes rather than product integration. The most consistently viewed video material online is TV shows watched via on-demand IPTV. From this perspective, brands are far safer putting their money into pre-rolls on episodes of Heroes or Glee - the safe and familiar TV model. The other view is that in rushing to fulfil the demand for TV like numbers coming from the agencies the new web networks failed to make a genuine case for engagement, for depth rather than volume. Although engagement has been a bullshit buzzword that everyone uses but no-one believes in, there are some positive signs.
The numbers presented by web networks have been dubious. What is a unique view, how long did they view for, how do we know it was a human, not a robot, or someone in a warehouse in Vietnam? This had led to better measurements (and lots of downward movement in numbers claims) and a demand from brands for more useful measurements. Ad charging is shifting from CPM to CPA - cost per action and brands now track customer comments on microblogging and social media. In other words the brands are becoming interested in depth and engagement. This is where web dramatists can step in. That's our currency, engagement, and if we're into interactive storytelling we know how to lead people to actions. We are going to have to look at drama in a way that is different from the way we looked at it in a linear disengaged time. We'll have to start with the brands and agencies in mind.
Despite my experiences and those of Bebo (RIP) I hold the optimistic view that a new wave of sponsored web drama will emerge.
The next blog will continue this theme: Return on Investment - What does ROI mean to web dramatists?