Paid Distribution Becomes a Mainstay of Web Series

So you’ve made your awesome web show, now what? You’re not successful unless you get an audience. And attracting views for your video series is not a simple feat.

tubemoguladageDistribution and promotion are recurring conundrums in online video, as we saw (most recently) on Friday, when we took a close look at John August’s pilot for The Remnants on Friday, which without a sponsor and a logistical miracle seems unlikely to add further episodes. Devoid of the rigid infrastructure of TV, and in the face of the trillions of other things competing for people’s attention online, how are you going to get them to show up to watch your show on a regular basis?

A TubeMogul survey of 50 web series found they lost 64 percent of their audiences from their first to second episode. We’ve seen similar trends in our own research. Ad Age’s Michael Learmonth, who requested the TubeMogul study, concludes the answer is to pay for distribution.

Paid distribution and distribution guarantees — where shows cut deals to get placement as if they were ad campaigns — are phenomena we’re seeing more and more these days. To be distributed like an ad, a video doesn’t necessarily have to be branded content, though any integrated sponsorship would travel along with the video itself. And (duh) sponsors are much more willing to participate if they know people will actually see your video.

Back when the video advertising network Broadband Enterprises held what it called the first “digital upfront” a couple years ago, we didn’t really understand the concept. But things became very clear when Google got into the act to distribute Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy using its massive AdSense network of sites. That’s paid off with some 30 million views since July.

And Google has gone on to employ the same strategy with new series like Poptub. It was reported that Poptub had guaranteed its sponsor, Pepsi, 3 billion impressions in 2008, though the show’s producers later told us that number was actually 1 billion. Still!

However, it’s more impressive to have your content succeed on its merits, which means web video producers aren’t all out there bragging about their paid distribution deals. Next New Networks CEO Lance Podell tells Ad Age that his company “categorically doesn’t buy advertising to distribute shows, instead relying on cross-promotion, PR and search optimization to build audiences.” But that’s not true, since NNN had its sponsor Starburst feature its show Nite Fite in the paid feature spot on the YouTube homepage. (There’s even an NNN blog post that compares the deal to Cavalcade.) The promoted episode was viewed 300,000 times in 24 hours.

Other ad networks like Tremor Media and Adconion are now offering a similar paid video distribution service. We recently spoke about these topics with Reeve Collins, CEO of branded entertainment studio RedLever, which is wholly owned by Adconion. RedLever started life as male-oriented video portal Kush TV, but when that wasn’t working out, changed its focus to branded content in the middle of last year. The move quickly paid off, with the startup being acquired by Adconion in October 2008.

Collins explained that Adconion’s reach of 140 million U.S. uniques makes it possible to very specifically target episodes of RedLever’s web shows. Further, the technology of the ad network neatens up some of the confusion around how to deal with distribution in a medium that has little to no schedule structure by detecting which episodes a user has already seen and serving them the appropriate one. Collins also described the show-as-ad format as more friendly to new viewers, since it pops up on sites where they already happen to be spending their time.

Collins said RedLever shows cost anywhere from $100,000 to $1.5 million each, including distribution. “If they want 100 million uniques to see it, not a problem, we can do that,” he said, adding that 10 million seems to be the number most people are looking for. With a combination of original shows and distribution deals like the one it has with Vuguru’s Back on Topps, RedLever hopes to launch 10 shows this year.

Starting out with a simple YouTube videoblog and somehow turning that into a lasting passionate audience for your show? How three years ago. As the online video medium evolves, the whole process only seems to get more complicated.

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