WTF and the Joy of DIY Ad Sales

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Those who plunge into the world of web content development tend to think big, aiming for the golden ring of viral spread and sponsors with deep pockets. But thinking small might be just as successful a premise, as seen in the daily series WTF (What’s This Food?), which is tailored for sponsorship by small businesses as opposed to big name brands.

Created by veteran web series producer and foodie Daniel Delaney, WTF‘s premise is simple: Every episode focuses on an obscure or exotic food item, with Delaney first explaining what it is and then using the ingredient in a recipe. What’s more complicated is the way that Delaney is working directly with small brands.

The “micro-sponsorship model” Delaney has come up with works as follows: Sponsors choose a day they want to be featured — an online calendar shows them what days are available — and fill out a request form. The price depends on the day, which began at $1 on Jan. 1 and is increasing one dollar at a time every day; the next available day, for example, is March 7, which will cost a sponsor $66. The sponsor then gets on-site advertising and an upfront personalized plug at the beginning of the episode, as well as add-ons like the option to include promotional codes or have Dan wear their brand on a T-shirt. And the price going up every day creates a sense of urgency for sponsors to sign up sooner rather than later.

While specific figures on sponsor ROI were not available, according to Delaney, feedback from previous sponsors has been very positive. A helpful element is allowing sponsors to include promotional codes for their products, which makes for a much more tangible takeaway from the consumer, giving them a stronger incentive to visit the site in question. “It also makes them feel like because they’re a part of this club, they get this discount — it creates exclusivity,” he said via phone.

While a tie between the episode’s content and the sponsor isn’t guaranteed, Delaney does try to orchestrate some sort of connection. For example, a recent episode on yuzu was sponsored by a Portland, Ore.-based bitters company, and the recipe in that episode was a cocktail using the fruit.

Delaney first combined his passion for food, small business and web video with the web series VendrTV, which is now on Next New Networks’ Hungry Nation as part of the Next New Creators program. Next New generally handles ad sales for the programming it distributes, but for this project, however, Delaney wanted to handle it himself. “It’s hard to let someone else handle your finances, and it’s hard to produce a show like VendrTV that costs a lot of money when you’re not sure if you’re going to get it back,” he said.

He also wanted to explore what’s possible with an in-video ad versus a pre-roll. “I’m personally much more likely to follow a recommendation from a friend — which is who’s following this, and who I’m building a relationship with — than a pre-roll ad,” he said. “It’s just not super-effective.” For right now, WTF is running on without its advertising options turned on, meaning the only source of income is from the daily sponsors.

But WTF‘s production costs are low, Delaney said: “My girlfriend and I shoot it in our kitchen, and what we cook becomes our lunch. The costs are food and energy.” An episode, from start to finish, takes about four hours to shoot and edit, leaving Delaney the rest of the day to approach potential sponsors.

So far, WTF has not attracted a huge audience — Delaney puts the number of viewers at about 3,000 an episode — but numbers are growing, and most importantly, he’s found, new viewers go back and watch older episodes, thus keeping the back catalog active.

“We’re talking about a really focused audience — I know that these are food people, inquisitive, wanting to try new food. It’s a really small audience, but it’s working for these small businesses, enough to be valuable for them,” Delaney said.

His girlfriend has quit her job to help him full-time with the production and managing relationships with sponsors. If this plan works, according to Delaney’s math he’ll make $80,000 in 2011. “That’s salary, you can live off that,” he said. “If I can sell 365 spots and live for a year off web video — that’s kind of notable.”

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