Standing Out From the Pack

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

As video-on-demand multiplies to 10,000 titles in the next few years, not only will viewers have more content to choose from, programmers will also have to work harder to make their product stand out.

Many are already refining their VOD marketing strategies, given the inevitable content explosion to come. But VOD marketing presents some challenges. VOD lacks a national footprint and is in only 21 million homes today, making it untenable for most programmers to promote VOD broadly. Instead, programmers have to be creative about how they market their content.

For instance, Warner Home Video promotes its on-demand flicks via ads in free on-demand content, like Cartoon Network. Mag Rack and sportskool reach beyond the limited on-demand universe to niche groups targeted by their video magazine topics. Showtime, on the other hand, decided earlier this year that it was time to market VOD broadly in all of its marketing material, from billboards to TV spots.

Another element of the user experience that will be crucial as the VOD platform offers more options is better navigation. For VOD to remain a user-friendly experience, it will have to assume more of the trappings of the Internet. With its billions upon billions of Web pages, the Internet is easy to use because of its search capabilities.

Search functionality will also protect VOD from being viewed as simply a dumping ground for content that couldn’t make it elsewhere. “The key to a 10,000-[program] universe is the development of extensive search,” said Page Thompson, VP and general manager of Comcast’s on-demand service. “I don’t think people will drill through 400 categories. They will go through sections where content is high value or will search by keyword.”

In the second half of 2006, interactive program guide maker Gemstar-TV Guide will introduce a beta trial in a Comcast market of a new version of the i-guide, with a broader rollout to follow. That version will allow a user to search VOD content by keyword or category, such as football or movies, and also to search across all linear and nonlinear content, said Todd Walker, senior VP and general manager of advanced TV at TV Guide. Additional releases in 2006 will allow a user to bookmark VOD content, create playlists and select VOD titles remotely via the Internet.

That is vital to the success of on-demand in an increasingly complex environment. But programmers also must ensure their messages are heard.

Showtime is going for a broad-strokes approach, touting on-demand availability of shows on billboards, buses, print ads, TV and radio spots and online ads, said Geof Rochester, senior VP of marketing. Feedback from focus groups and VOD data indicated consumers in many cases were sampling new programs via on-demand. For instance, 60 percent of Showtime subscribers who saw “Fat Actress” watched the premiere episode on-demand.

In addition, while VOD isn’t nationally available, it is in most Showtime homes because most major cable operators offer the premium channel on-demand service and satellite operators do as well in a DVR download form, he said.

Even niche services that exist only on-demand, such as Rainbow Media-owned Mag Rack and sportskool, have to reach beyond the VOD walls to market. Sportskool has built its brand around personalities, including soccer star Mia Hamm and skateboarder Mike Vallely. The brand will be the presenting sponsor of Mr. Vallely’s upcoming skatepark tour, which will enable it to reach one of its target groups, said Dan Ronayne, general manager and senior VP of the two services. Sportskool offers instruction and programming on sports, including skateboarding, basketball, volleyball and hockey, he said.

“As there are 10,000 hours, and that day is coming soon, we think the key determining factor in how people make their viewing decisions is based on brands they know and brands they have some kind of affinity for,” he said.

Matching Themes

Mag Rack also markets within VOD, co-marketing its niche titles with thematically related on-demand movies. It matched its wedding content to the Universal Pictures film “Wedding Date.” Mag Rack is partnering with Universal to produce a special edition of its “24seven gamer” series to promote the on-demand release of the Universal film “Doom” in March.

Movie studio Warner Home Video promotes its titles in the VOD environment as well, by placing ads in free on-demand content that fits demographically with the movies it wants to highlight. This summer it ran ads promoting “Racing Stripes” on-demand in front of Cartoon Network’s VOD content.

“I’m a real advocate of free on-demand because it’s a targeted audience,” said Michele Edelman, VP of marketing for Warner Home Video On Demand, adding that the tactic is new this year. “There is absolutely no waste. It’s the most effective advertising medium to fit the on-demand customer. Fish where the fish are.”

But as hours and viewing options grow, the job of the marketer gets tougher. That’s because the number of free movies will grow, necessitating that Warner Home Video indicate in its messaging when films have a price tag attached. The studio will also add bonus features available only on-demand or pay-per-view, and not on the DVDs, starting with the December releases of its films “Batman Begins” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Basic programmer Court TV has a different philosophy with on-demand. “I’m not sure any basic cable network would want to market their on-demand,” said Bob Rose, executive VP of affiliate relations for Court TV. “We’re not interested in taking audiences from the core product of Court TV.”

But on-demand can be useful in driving linear ratings. For instance, the network offered a sneak preview on-demand in Time Warner markets of its special “Scott Peterson: A Deadly Game” from July 30 through Aug. 3, in advance of the Aug. 4 linear premiere. The special generated a 0.8 household rating in non-Time Warner markets and a 1.0 rating in Time Warner markets.

National Geographic Channel believes VOD promotion, through partnerships with its MSO partners, is valuable because of the channel’s goal to be an omnipresent brand on every consumer platform, said Steve Schiffman, executive VP for marketing and new media at National Geographic Channel.

In September, Comcast asked other networks to provide Rome-themed content because the operator was pushing HBO’s “Rome” on VOD. National Geographic Channel offered behind-the-scenes content from its upcoming special “Hannibal v Rome” and was rewarded with placement on Comcast’s VOD barker channel, he said.

As hours grow, networks must think more about how to differentiate their content. That could include 20-minute trailers on-demand for hour-long shows, for instance, Mr. Schiffman said. “A 10,000-hour world is not different from a 300-channel linear universe and a broadband universe. We are in a product proliferation of media, and I think marketing becomes ever more important. VOD is just a microcosm of what’s happening in the broader media marketplace,” he said.