Online video finds a niche

The popularity of YouTube has made video a more attractive option for PR professionals, but for some clients, smaller sites could end up being the better choice.

The popularity of YouTube has made video a more attractive option for PR professionals, but for some clients, smaller sites could end up being the better choice.

The gritty HBO crime drama The Wire has been hailed as one of the greatest shows in the history of television. So the network is understandably a bit picky when it comes to promotional strategy. When the time came to design an online video campaign to promote the show's new season, the network's agency, Deep Focus, wanted to find a site that could deliver a sophisticated hip-hop audience, along with the technical tools and savvy to ensure that the production was professional.

Enter Blastro.com. As an online video site that specializes in hip-hop and R&B videos, Blastro fit the requirements.

"[Bigger sites] don't qualify as a savvy user base," explains Michael Miraflor, senior media planner at Deep Focus. "I don't consider them being niche enough sites to attract a user that would be interested not only in the music culture, but that also really goes the extra mile to search for content that they can't find on those major sites, and view video that you can't see on MTV."

For The Wire, Blastro and Deep Focus teamed up to produce a battle of spoken word poets - Blastro tracked down quality slam poets at a competition, taped them performing pieces, and then allowed users to vote for a champion, all on blastro.com/poets (prominently branded by The Wire).

Miraflor says such campaigns engage the user base by being "active," as opposed to traditional "pre-roll" ads running before selected video content, which are "passive" and tend to annoy users.

"Something like this, where we take advantage of users who actually generate content, makes it a two-way conversation," he says.

A way to stand out

Indeed, the rise of YouTube has not done anything to hurt the universe of smaller online video sites on the Internet; if anything, it has made them more attractive to companies as potential communications vehicles.

Although competition from traditional advertising agencies and more niche digital media firms is stiff, PR agencies are well engaged in the race to identify and work with smaller video sites on behalf of clients.

"When you go to a [smaller video] site, you're not fighting against everyone else's content," says Tom Biro, senior director of new-media strategies for MWW Group. "There's a lot of really good professional video on YouTube. But as we all know, if you tag your content the right way, somebody else's work can be coming up ahead of yours, whereas yours might be much more relevant."

Biro recently worked on a campaign with Baristanet.com, a citizen journalism Web site in New Jersey, to reach out to new users by embedding some of its video content - such as a holiday party last Christmas - onto blip.tv. He also used tools from blip.tv to embed the video directly onto the Baristanet site, and it subsequently drew more than 1,000 viewers.

"We've been using video as another way to inform and entertain our readers and drive traffic to the site," says Liz George, managing editor of Baristanet. "The video lets our readers be the stars and lets new visitors to the site see what we're all about."

Online video content is not just about garnering viewers who come to a particular site. Its greater potential lies with those viewers who pick up a company's video and embed it in their own Web sites or blogs. That technology is powered by the site of original posting, meaning agencies must take that into consideration when advising clients.

"There's an awareness factor involved," Biro says. "The other sites haven't necessarily gotten the big publication play, and, therefore, the marketing people or the C-suite people who say, 'We'd love to be on YouTube,' do not necessarily know that the other sites have just as much value."

Some online video sites are forging a middle path by making themselves both a destination for the general public to come enjoy content and a virtual consultant skilled at helping companies set up their own branded video sites. One with just such a business plan is vSocial.com, which works with companies to run their own video sites, as well as operating its own clip-laden home page that boasts 200,000 users per day.

"Typically, what you'll find [among clients], whether it's a broadcaster [or] a brand manager - ultimately, the way they look at this as a model is... as bread crumbs," says Mark Sigal, vSocial's CEO. "Breadcrumbs in the sense of no matter where the consumer comes across content, you ultimately want to use what's generally short-form content to bring them back to some longer-form, educational selling materials."

Such "white label" businesses are routinely used by savvy companies (or their agencies) to build microsites that can be branded in any way they desire, rather than leaving them at the mercy of the tidal wave of other videos on a bigger site. Because that business is a solid money generator for vSocial, ironically, it thinks of its popular main site as a "lead generator" that shows off its capabilities more than its bread and butter.

Proprietors of video sites have found that it is a low-entry-cost business that can be greatly appealing to corporate clients if a site can either capture a desirable viewing demographic, or build a template attractive enough to sell.

Content is hardly a problem - one site that caters to new mothers, NewBaby.com, used a simple ProfNet query to round up 25 baby experts to make videos for the site for free because they saw it as free advertising. That content, in turn, drives users, and then corporate clients like Gymboree, to the site, notes NewBaby.com CEO Bob Sullivan.

Everyone agrees that online video will only get bigger as a communications tool because it is almost unparalleled at drawing audiences in. Wendy Weatherford, VP of consumer and music marketing at VH1, chose Blastro for an ongoing customized campaign promoting the network's show Charm School.

"Rather than just slap a bunch of videos online," Weatherford says, "we try to... take advantage of the medium."

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