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As the world of digital video converges in New York City for the annual NewFronts presentations this month, online entertainment itself is at a tipping point.
NewFronts are born of upfronts, traditional televisions’ yearly affair to court media buyer favor. But splashy displays of programming aimed at convincing brands that their advertising dollars are best spent on CBS and not FOX have now become de rigueur for the digital set, where the competition for dollars comes from the same video-centric pool. Where a network can sell a set slate of Friday programming, the platforms and multi-channel networks involved in NewFronts can also sell buyers on a digital star to make ads for them, and content that can integrate with a paid sponsorship.
With many new participants in 2016, the mix for this year’s NewFronts will combine MCNs and legacy media brands, platforms, and digital startups. Here’s what to watch for during the madness.
1) Media buyers still need a digital education
“When a [media] buyer makes a decision to buy into the NBA or the NFL or NBC, they kind of know what they’re buying,” explains Reza Izad, CEO of Studio 71 (formerly Collective Digital Studio). “Even if they haven’t seen CSI in a while, they know what they’re buying. They know where it fits into the cultural fabric. Here, they know the numbers, they know the trend intellectually. I don’t know that they always understand the content formats or the content types.”
Izad points out that his company does a lot of education around specific tropes and formats in the digital space, where media buyers might see huge numbers but not understand the content that’s generating those views.
Izad says a key is for brands to figure out how to reconcile their general media messages with what they present in the digital space.
“If you look at how beauty… brands market themselves, it’s still very skinny and pretty girls who are famous and live lives no one else can,” he says. “If you go online it’s the exact opposite. It’s the awkward girl, it’s the girl with acne. It comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors and orientations. And they’re frankly driving more conversations than Vogue.”
2) Original content is key
The boom of digital content that’s come with the launch of platforms like YouTube Red and go90, or the new potential accolades like revamped Emmy categories, means creators are looking to digital as a home instead of just a stopping point on the way to TV. At NewFronts, presenters will showcase how brands are now a part of that story.
“We’re finding it much better to make [original content] independent of a brand, and figure out the best release schedule,” says Izad. “Brands are looking for established hits. Sometimes these newer formats can be a little more speculative. That doesn’t mean brands aren’t underwriting a bunch of stuff. Last year we produced six or seven Estée Lauder series. That was very much part of their content strategy.”
Says Brett Bouttier, president of millennial-focused AwesomenessTV: “It’s an antiquated thing to think in terms of buckets. It’s video brand marketing, and if I’m a brand, what is my strategy and how much does TV play in that, how much does video play in that, how much does original content play in that? It’s all got to be a cohesive strategy.”
For Awesomeness’s 12-to-24-year-old demographic, that strategy needs to include ads that speak to modern sensibilities.
“Our audience specifically finds the 30-second spot to be really interruptive,” says Bouttier. “They tune it out, they skip it, at worst they get annoyed by it. But when we integrate brand messaging into the content, when it’s part of the story in a way, they understand that it’s ad supported and they’re OK with it.”
Which helps explain why YouTube will soon to implement six-second ad units that are unskippable.
“Shorter is better,” he says. “We are talking about a generation who embraced Vine in a big way. I think it will cause us all to be more creative.”
3) Acquisitions play a role
Ownership is a key part of NewFronts content. On Day 1 Vimeo announced a deal to purchase VHX, the startup that helps creators sell video content directly to their consumers. LIkewise Comcast recently announced its deal to purchase DreamWorks and with it a 51 percent stake in AwesomenessTV, something that may come up in its presentation. (Bouttier had no comment.)
4) Live technology will pop in the summer
Facebook made a play into the livestreaming space last month with the broad launch of Facebook Live, using traditional and digital celebs to boost its adoption. It’s not the only livestream platform—Twitch, Periscope, even YouTube—but the proliferation of the medium timed with the summer months could put livestreamed content on the forefront.
“Summer is interesting because it’s when younger viewers have a lot more discretionary time,” says Bouttier. “It’s always when our audience is at its peak. One of the things that drives viewership is digital influencers and this new brand of celebrity. These talent are so good at knowing their audience and speaking to them and relating to them, so when you take that one step further and introduce live video it’s amazing. These talent have been doing live tours, and you still have to get to a town to get to an event. So now if I can do that from a house or a studio and reach more people, that’s a really great experience.”
Bouttier thinks livestreaming opens up a new market for those in locations who can’t experience events like YouTube tours.
“That access is the holy grail for that audience,” he says.
5) VR technology could be next
“There’s definitely a wave among advertisers in wanting to be experimental,” says Bouttier. “They want to be early in discovering new and different ways to reach an audience. They’re looking to us, because we’re coming to them and saying this works.”
Explains Izad: “At scale, [VR is] just developing so I think that’s a trend to watch over time. … We have a bunch of content we’re making in that space.”
The key difference for MCNs like AwesomenessTV or Studio 71, according to Bouttier, is that they aren’t platforms, so their reach can move fluidly across channels.
“Our sell is different than Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or YouTube even,” he says. “Our sell is not ‘hey, buy audience.’ It’s buy context, it’s buy attention, it’s buy engagement, against our audience. We’re able to do that across every platform.”
6) Ads might reach globally, but their economy is still local
YouTubers might have a reach that transcends geographic boundaries, but at NewFronts the game is still about the U.S., and advertising is still about localization.
“Each market has it own peculiarities and it’s own relationship to broadcast,” says Izad, whose company is now owned by the German broadcast giant ProSieben. “We’re still video, and we’re still lumped into a video spend. We have to enter each market with a very specific sales approach that may be different than the way it is in the U.S.”
Still, American-based MCNs can drive a global presence, sometimes without even trying.
“[Natural Born Pranksters] is a good example of that,” Izad says of this year’s prank film starring YouTubers Roman Atwood, Dennis Roady, and Vitaly Zdorovetskiy. “We did very little marketing outside of the United States, but we were No. 2 in 25 markets around the world in the iTunes store on our week of release. That’s because of the global audience these stars drive.”
7) Digital content is still waiting for its ‘Survivor moment’
“In reality television, there was a moment where it was kind of a second-class citizen in TV, and then Survivor came along,” explained Izad. “We call it the ‘Survivor moment.’ The whole business turned, fast.”
While Izad points to global digital phenomenons like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, he notes that while it was close to creating a storm, it wasn’t a narrative-based movement.
“The minute that happens, I think this market explodes,” he says. “Not that it isn’t really robust, but the whole attitude towards it, the way brands interact with it, that cultural thing no one can deny: That will redefine the entire business for everybody.”
A former YouTube reporter for the Daily Dot, Rae Votta has more than a decade of experience in the digital and entertainment industries. Her work has appeared on AOL, Huffington Post, Out Magazine, Logo, VH1, Current TV, Billboard, and NYMag. She joined Netflix in 2016.