Independent Web shows can attract advertisers, sponsors, and thousands of viewers, but marketing and profiting from them is a challenge
By Karen E. Klein
Yana Berlin dabbed on a product sample for a new perfume and liked it O.K. But when her three grown daughters got a whiff, they had one reaction: “You smell like Grandma!”
“I don’t think the manufacturer is going to like it, because it’s being marketed to women over 40 and no one at 44 wants to smell like Grandma,” Berlin notes wryly.
In the past, the perfume company might not have gotten direct feedback from people like Berlin, a San Diego entrepreneur who founded the Fabulously40 social networking Web site. But that’s changed now that Berlin and her daughters, Daisy, Sasha, and Stephanie, have started a Web TV show called, The Love or Hate Debate. It features product reviews and demonstrations from two generations of women.
$20 Billion in Ads At Risk
Like growing numbers of entrepreneurs, Berlin and her family produce the show themselves, edit it, and post it online using free or low-cost video-uploading and streaming software. These Internet-based videos—most packaged in short episodes no more than four minutes long—have the potential to transform marketing and turn small business owners into celebrities in their own right, experts say.
“It’s a fascinating shift and one of the more important ones we’ve seen in B2B communications,” says Daniel Taylor, lead technology and media analyst at The Big Picture, a research firm covering digital media, technology, and communications.
If Internet video continues to catch on as a marketing alternative for small businesses, Taylor says, $20 to $30 billion in advertising that currently goes to the business and trade press could evaporate. Small firms that typically advertise in their industry trade publications, business publications, the Yellow Pages, and on cable television could shift their marketing dollars into producing their own video content. “About 10% of the overall advertising spending in the U.S. could be at risk because of this” new phenomenon, Taylor says. “It’s largely small to midsize businesses that are involved in this, and the caliber of people and the quality of what they’re doing is really amazing.”
Starting in a Garage
Take Andrew Lock, a marketing consultant and former U.K. television producer whose weekly show, Help! My Business Sucks! provides entrepreneurial advice and interviews and attracts corporate sponsors.
The 74-and-counting episodes of Lock’s show attract 100,000 viewers each, have helped boost his consulting business to five-figure monthly revenue and brought him speaking invitations around the world, he says. “I go to conferences where entrepreneurs line up and ask for my autograph,” Lock says. “And I’m just this little British guy living in Utah who started a show out of my garage!”
That show proved so popular, he says, that he built a studio facility near his home in Salt Lake City where he houses professional sets, six employees, and a host of additional presenters who tape their own shows there.
Production Quality Improving
While it’s still very early in the world of Web TV, Lock says, there are myriad shows springing up that cover niche topics like wine, gadgetry, and scrapbooking and are building loyal audiences. “These are real people, not Hollywood, air-brushed celebrities, and it seems viewers respond positively to that real-ness that is very different from traditional TV,” he says.
All of this, of course, is only possible due to technology updates that have taken place in the last three years, says Steven C. Hawley, principal analyst and consultant at tvstrategies, a telecommunications consulting firm in based in Seattle.
In the earliest years of Internet video, picture quality was low, frames were tiny, and the action dribbled out herky-jerky. But now, new technology platforms, such as Blip TV and Vimeo, have sprung up and are maturing so quickly it’s difficult to track them. “The number and type of are proliferating and changing constantly. Internet technology competes head-to-head with cable and satellite, and the availability of multiple platforms makes it possible for just about anybody to distribute content over broadband,” Hawley says. “In fact, I’ve thought of doing it myself as a consultant and an analyst.”
All You Need is $100
It is also nowhere near as expensive as it once was to produce and distribute PC-quality video content. “You can build an audience through social media and through your customer database and drive traffic to your own site. All it takes is $100 for a video camera and a mike. You set it up on a tripod, talk to it, and upload it,” Hawley says.
He sees most small business people using Internet shows to do self-publishing and self-promotion. But entrepreneurs are also infiltrating—if not dominating—the entertainment side of the Web TV experience.
Leyna Juliet Weber, a writer and actor, moved to Los Angeles from New York City a few years ago hoping to break into the big time. But she found that opportunities were few and far between. “The TV climate is really bad, so instead of just waiting around, I worked on some student films at USC and met a fantastic gal named Annie Lukowski,” Weber says.
Launched at FunnyorDie
The two stayed in touch, and after Lukowski attended Weber’s live comedy show, they decided to collaborate. They formed a company called Working Bug Media and produced two shorts that they posted at FunnyorDie and YouTube (GOOG).
“We funded them ourselves on a dime budget,” Weber says. After the shorts were well-received, they decided to write and produce a 10-episode show called Road to the Altar. “It’s a wedding story shot as a mockumentary and told from the groom’s point of view,” Weber says. “We pitched it around town and to Web production companies, but everyone is afraid to put money into anything.”
Eventually, the pair negotiated a deal with a company called MWD Media. When Weber was able to get Jaleel White, who played Urkel on the 1990s TV show Family Matters, to star opposite her in the series, they attracted corporate sponsors including Panda Express and Pier 1 Imports. At least 40,000 people have viewed the series on YouTube alone, Weber says.
Old-Fashioned Show Sponsors
Still, although independent Web shows can attract advertisers, sponsors, and thousands of viewers, marketing and profiting from them is a challenge, says Joshua Cohen, the co-founder of Tilzy.tv, a Web site that chronicles and reviews episodic Web series.
The options for Internet video advertising include pre-roll, post-roll, and mid-roll ads as well as overlay ads that pop up at the bottom of the screen. Then there are old-fashioned show sponsors that hark back to the early days of television, when one company or specific product would fund a show and often get a plug by the host. “There are thousands of these shows being produced by major studios, TV networks, film students, and amateurs. It’s everything from NBC down to the most independent, bare-bones productions,” Cohen says.
Episodes typically run from three to five minutes, because most Internet shows are viewed at work. “Lunchtime is the new prime time for online viewing. Technology is being developed so you can watch the Internet on your big screen TV, but it hasn’t broken through yet, so most of the viewing is still happening on the PC at work,” Cohen says.
Trying to Monetize the Shows
While some firms predict that Internet advertising will reach $1 billion by 2011, Cohen says, online shows are not yet pulling dollars away from traditional television advertising. “People are still trying to figure things out online, where they’ve been making money off of TV for 50 years and they’ve gotten very good at it,” he says.
Lock says that while he has used his Web TV show to attract sponsors, increase his consulting profile, and boost his revenues, many Internet entrepreneurs are not as good at monetizing their efforts as he has been. “The show enables people to discover me and what I provide in a relaxed and informal setting. I don’t have to sell. If people respond to the messages in the show, they’ll come to me. I don’t have to do any cold-calling or any of that silly nonsense,” he says.
While many entrepreneurs love what they do, and enjoy producing their own shows, he believes that many of them could make more money at it if they did strategic marketing and advertising campaigns. “There are extremely popular shows that aren’t making any money at all, because they don’t know how to monetize it,” he says.
“A Slow Process”
Lock predicts, however, that advertisers will be increasingly willing to buy into Web TV series in the near future. “It’s a slow process, but it’s definitely happening. Advertisers are looking for other avenues with people tuning out of television, fast-forwarding through commercials or watching their shows on Hulu,” he says.
Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.