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Summary:

In the web series world, creators often rely on brands to get their content funded. But why do brands sign up for these series? And how do they measure their return on investment? We set out to find out.

leap year hiscox

In the web series world, creators often rely on brands to get their content funded. The level of branding in a series varies wildly, from characters on The Guild occasionally using Sprint phones to Illeana Douglas working at an Ikea, but much like in the early days of television, the “Presented By” tag is ever present.

It’s not hard to see how creators benefit from this relationship, as partnering with a brand means a reliable source of cash to put a project into production; it’s not a gamble like many independent productions can be. But I’ve often wondered why brands sign up for these series — and, specifically, how those brands measure their return on investment. Can you put a price on word-of-mouth? Turns out the answer is yes.

Wilson Cleveland of CJP Digital has made a name for himself as a producer of branded content; his first show, The Temp Life, is heralded as one of the first-ever branded web series, and since then he’s produced shows for brands including Trident, the Better Sleep Council and Spherion.

And in working with brands, he’s created a formula by which the actual monetary value of a branded web series can be measured for the brand. “We’re in a position to calculate a different kind of ROI than ad plays and impressions,” Cleveland said via phone. The basic purpose is to evaluate things from an earned media perspective.

For example, Cleveland has a new web series, Leap Year, premiering this Tuesday Monday on Hulu. The show, produced with Attention Span Media and Yuri Baranovsky’s Happy Little Guillotine Films, depicts a contest between five startups (founded by five friends), all competing for a half million dollars in funding. The show is sponsored by Hiscox Small Business Insurance, stars Baranovsky, Cleveland and The Bannen Way‘s Mark Gantt, and includes appearances by Guy Kawasaki, Gary Vaynerchuk and Mashable editor-in-chief Adam Ostrow.

I just spent a paragraph describing the show, along with an embedded version of the trailer. In doing the math for Hiscox, Cleveland would calculate the value of that mention by measuring the “column inches” I devoted to it in this piece, and then use GigaOM’s ad rates to determine how much it would have cost to actually buy an ad of comparable size on our site. A media mention in a bigger publication, like Fast Company or The Hollywood Reporter? It’d be worth more.

Other metrics that come into play include social media stats like Facebook fans. Social media strategy firm Vitrue recently developed a valuation that determined the value of one Facebook fan to be $3.60. Leap Year, as of last Friday, had 4,373 people following it on Facebook — that’s a value of $15,742.80 in marketing dollars.

In addition, every view of Leap Year will count as an advertising impression for Hiscox, as each episode begins with a full-frame “Presented By” mention for the company. (It’s also the closest Leap Year gets to in-show branding.)

This sort of measurement has evolved out of the PR world — but things work differently when a branded series is being managed by an ad agency. An ad agency, according to Cleveland, will guarantee a certain number of impressions to to a client (which may or may not include “buying” views with auto-playing ads).

But when a branded series is treated like a PR initiative, there’s more risk but potentially greater reward. Cleveland, who managed distribution and marketing for the second season of Easy to Assemble, said that through the collective efforts of the entire ETA team, Season 2 of the IKEA-branded series generated $80 million worth of publicity for the Swedish furniture company. The actual budget for the show was much, much less.

Cleveland’s methods are specific to his approach, but there’s a core element that carries through across all branded productions. For example, Scotty Iseri (of Scotty Got An Office Job fame) produced the holiday-themed web series Merry Holidays for help desk startup Zendesk.

With approximately 35,000 views, it wasn’t a smash success — but 27 percent of those who watched clicked through to the Zendesk site. In addition, they received a 48 percent uptick in unique hits and 22 percent more Facebook fans, plus press mentions on Boing Boing, Time.com and other sites that might not have otherwise covered the B2B company.

“To me it was an issue of small audience, but the right audience,” Iseri said via email.

The key for Cleveland is telling stories that are “tangentially relevant to what the client does” — which is why a series sponsored by a job placement site is about temping, and a series sponsored by a small business insurance company is about the founding of start-ups. “It’s a visual narrative illustration of whatever PR story they want to tell,” he said.

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  1. Wilson Cleveland Sunday, June 5, 2011

    Thanks so much Liz. “Leap Year” actually premieres tomorrow (Monday, the 6th) not Tuesday. Really appreciate it!

  2. Kees Winkel Sunday, June 5, 2011

    Thanks Liz,
    Good piece of writing and looking forward till we get Hulu in our part of the world (Netherlands).

    1. Kees – Good news – there are plenty of places to watch Leap Year until Hulu comes to the Netherlands – head over to the show’s Facebook page for all the links: http://asm.ly/LeapYearFB

  3. Amazing article thanks Liz!

  4. modelmotion Sunday, June 5, 2011

    If it is geoblocked on Hulu it is not on the World Wide Web and hence it is technically not a “web series” (web is an abbreviation for “World Wide Web” as you know). Brands can do a LOT of harm to their brand by geoblocking. It is something that is not appreciated on the World Wide Web and those who endorse and use it will suffer damage to their brand image as a result.

    1. MM- Those are all good points so I’ll try and address them all at once. I’m glad you found the links to the other Leap Year channels because I was going to say YouTube, Blip, DailyMotion, etc. were always part of the plan in addition to Hulu because you and I know Hulu geo-blocks. I never want anything we make to be restricted to anyone and in fact, Leap Year’s sponsor is based in the UK so we always wanted it places open to everyone (the series web site will use the YouTube player so it may be accessed on mobile as well).

      We actually just launched the Hiscox SMB Facebook page maybe 2 weeks ago. The Leap Year page was launched I think in February. They’re kind of a new player in the U.S. for small biz insurance so we wanted time to get people familiar with Leap Year first; get them to see the content first and the brand second if that makes sense. Leap Year is an introduction for Hiscox to this audience so it wouldn’t have made as much sense (to us anyway) to expect the audience to engage with the brand before they’d gotten to know who they were through Leap Year.

      I agree, it will be interesting to see how the series benefits the sponsor in this way but we’re confident in the idea that the real-life startup entrepreneurs out there who could benefit from knowing about Hiscox will somehow relate to the characters and situations we portray in Leap Year. Hopefully, if they like the show, they’ll like the sponsor who funded it for them, you know?

      Thanks as always for keeping me on my toes :)

      1. Thanks for the reply.

        Yes, it is an interesting way to introduce a new brand to a new audience. Look, we are talking about them already, so that is something (how many dollars is that worth?)

        It is nice to see the show will be on several platforms and non geoblocked. That is very important…………and to those who support geoblocking I fully understand the reasons why some choose to use it … I just think its horrid how it breaks the fabric of the “web” and makes “embeds” problematic for those who have a global readership. We are one “media World now and it is time to recognize that fact by supporting the World Wide Web and not regionally censored versions of it.

        Anyway, I guess we will all be watching episode one very soon now on our preferred distribution platform, so good luck with the project and I hope it pays off for the sponsor.

        Hopefully in time those who use the “presented by” model will give the “creatives” much more room to produce the most compelling content for the viewer……..that is really the “holy grail” from a viewer perspective, and in time hopefully sponsors will see true value in that model as well.

  5. modelmotion Sunday, June 5, 2011

    Hiscox Small Business Insurance has 49 likes on Facebook.

    http://www.facebook.com/HiscoxSmallBiz

    What will be significant is how many “likes” on the “web series” translate into “likes” for the company itself……at least if you are going to attribute a monetary value of $3.60 to each fan. Yes, it is possible that the “likes” for a web series on FB have some monetary value but is it still $3.60 in terms of branded content?

  6. modelmotion Sunday, June 5, 2011

    It looks like this might also be distributed on Youtube, Blip.tv, Tumblr and iTunes.

    Right?

    http://www.youtube.com/leapyeartv
    http://blip.tv/leap-year
    http://leapyear-tv.tumblr.com/

    Is there a time delay on those channels?

  7. modelmotion Sunday, June 5, 2011

    Add DailyMotion to that list:

    http://www.dailymotion.com/LeapYearTV

    13 047 views for the trailer on that one……

  8. modelmotion Sunday, June 5, 2011

    “An ad agency, according to Cleveland, will guarantee a certain number of impressions to to a client (which may or may not include “buying” views with auto-playing ads).

    But when a branded series is treated like a PR initiative, there’s more risk but potentially greater reward.”

    Could you clarify this part? Does it mean that “Leap Year” will NOT be using “paid views”?

    In a previous article NTV has discussed the use of “paid views”:

    http://gigaom.com/video/paid-distribution-becomes-a-mainstay-of-web-series/

    How exactly does one generate a “paid view”? (ok that might be a trade secret, but does anyone know?). What do we know about the people who are responsible for “paid views”. What do we know about their viewing habits. Why do most paid views appear to be almost invisible if you look at discussions on social networks. Does a “paid view” ever make it past the first second of a video, or worse, the preroll before a video? Do such “paid views” actually view the content they are directed to……or do they simply click away because they were “tricked” in some way?

    Finally how does the approach being used by “Leap Year” differ from this classical “paid view” approach.

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