The Digital Newfronts – What did they miss?

Digital NewfrontsThe digital newfronts from some of the internet’s biggest players have come and gone over the past 2 weeks. Unless you’re a media junkie or in the business of buying and selling media inventory, you probably didn’t even know they were going on. That’s because they’re not about you. They’re about the people trying to sell to you. The Fords, the P&Gs, and the McDonald’s of the world are always trying to figure out the best new medium in which to market their products to 18-49 year olds, and the upfronts, traditional media’s habitual way of telling advertisers about their upcoming efforts to draw viewers to the television, is there to satiate major advertisers’ appetites for sexy, exciting, millennial-drawing content.

The digital upfronts, or “newfronts”, are relatively new. These probably have only been the norm for about 3 years, although AOL has probably been doing them much longer than that. All of the major players had newfront presentations this year. From Microsoft and Yahoo, to YouTube and AOL, tech companies were at the forefront of trying to take as many advertising dollars from major advertisers as they can, before the traditional TV players have their upfronts over the next couple of weeks. So did it work?

The short-answer? No.

While the digital newfronts this year did a good job of pitching advertisers on their hopes and dreams for an online world full of beautiful, premium, long-form content, what they didn’t do was promise advertisers what they’re really looking for when they come to these presentations: brands they can be associated with. Yes, it has become clear, with the efforts of both Netflix and Hulu, that long-form programming (either 30 minute comedies or hour-long dramas), is the way to get the biggest audiences, but if tech companies don’t market this content right and treat it like something beyond that of just another product, the content won’t be what advertisers are clamoring to spend their ad dollars on.

Take for example a show like The Big Bang Theory. The show gets about 15-16 million households per episode. That leaves more than 85 million households doing something else. Now even though I don’t watch The Big Bang Theory, I know it exists. I know it’s on in the 8 o’clock hour on Thursday nights. And I know several of the faces and names in the cast. That’s all because the show has been heavily branded–so much so that it’s a brand unto itself. Its brand is why you can buy The Big Bang Theory t-shirts, board games and action figures. Like a consumer goods company with billion dollar brands, TV’s top comedy has amassed a following of people that don’t use its product, but damn sure know of its existence. You may not use Tide detergent, but to heck if you don’t recognize it when you pass in the detergent isle.

And that’s what my technology company brethren missed their pitches at the newfronts this year. So far, it seems like these shows are just products to them. The Microsofts, Apples and even my employer, Googles of the tech world treat almost all of their new “things” as product extensions. It’s not their fault, as it’s the way of the tech world. In that world, we have product managers and product marketers, that traditionally focus on the user, building a quality product and fulfilling a hole in society.

However, media doesn’t work that way–especially long-form content. When you start dealing with premium content, viewers and advertisers want big names, big budgets and big ideas. And you can’t have one and not the others and still succeed. Nextflix’s “House of Cards”, successful or not, has turned heads because Netflix invested in a director we know, actors we’re familiar with and a marketing and PR budget that might put some TV companies to shame. Did they bet the house and get lucky? You’re damn right they did. But that’s media. Some of the shows broadcasters are going to present to Fortune 500 companies as their next big thing we’ll ultimately get cancelled within 5 weeks of their first airing in the Fall. That’s the nature of the beast. Tech companies aren’t use to that type of failure rate. And they’re going to try to use a lot of data to overcome it.

But even if they come up with the secret formula to pick content investments with better ROIs, those successes will still require huge upfront marketing costs, and we haven’t seen any tech company willing to do that–at least until now.

YouTube is trying their damndest to promote the channels of 3 YouTube stars. Only time will tell if this round of marketing, along with a reported second one to come this summer, will actually build the awareness that YouTube is hoping for. Still, even though YouTube is trying that, there’s one more caveat to all of this: they’re the lone tech company at the newfronts not betting the farm on the long-form content!

So you have Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL telling advertisers we’re going to bring you premium content without premium marketing, and YouTube is telling those same advertisers that they’re bringing you short-form content with the premium advertising. It really does show a mix of signals within the online video world, one that may prevent advertisers from transferring their TV budgets to digital video just yet. Here you have tech companies trying to produce the type of content that can become big brands, but the biggest tech company of them all isn’t interested and is highly involved in promoting its status quo.

So what does that mean? It means that by the end of 2014, we might finally have more answers than questions. By year’s end, we’ll know whether the tech companies ability to produce content brands is existent, or if Netflix is the exception to the rule. Premium content will either do very well, or YouTube will prove that the short clip is here to stay. Whichever is the answer, at least it’s looking like viewers will have a lot of options throughout the rest of 2014, and advertisers should have some by this time next year.

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