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3 Brand Storytelling Tips for Winning with Webisodes

Beautiful news tv redhead woman on 3d displayThink of web television as a nuclear family. It all started with TV — the traditional type. Along came the web, which, in many ways, was TV’s polar opposite: interactive, responsive, progressive. As much as TV was about tradition, the web was all about change. 

From this unlikely pairing came little programs that, when viewed together, make up an episodic web series, or webisode. Webisodes share some of the attributes of each of their media parents; yet they also bring a whole new generation of brand storytelling opportunities to life. It’s this pedigreed combination of the web and television that some big brands are experimenting with as a way to provide distinctive and uniquely engaging content to consumers.

As one of the most engaging forms of branded content, the episodic web series has a lot of appeal. For example, just like a TV miniseries or a series of books, a good web TV series can help forge an ongoing relationship with target consumers: Once viewers have been drawn in by the entertainment value of a webisode, they’re likely to stick around to see what happens next — and to visit related YouTube channels, Facebook pages, or other touch points that are part of your branded environment. They’ll get to know your brand a little better. They may even start to like it more than they realized.

There are other benefits, too. Web series are less expensive to produce than a traditional television show; yet, thanks to advances in streaming technology, they are just as convenient and enjoyable to watch. Webisodes have also opened doors to successful new methods of marketing — ones that don’t need to resort to banging the consumer over the head with a brand’s message.

Credit writer and film producer Scott Zakarin for launching the webisode trend. Back in 1995, Zakarin created an interactive web series called “The Spot,” a drama, akin to prime-time series like “Melrose Place.” He invited advertisers to sponsor the show — and many were intrigued enough to give it a shot, including K-Swiss and Toyota.

Scott Zakarin, creator of “The Spot”

Today’s web series aren’t so different than “The Spot,” with one notable exception: Many of them are now created by the brands themselves, rather than by traditional television producers. Instead of seeking out sponsorship opportunities in existing programs, brand marketers are developing series of their own in the hope that they can woo audiences with great content that increases brand loyalty and, ultimately, sales.

Here are a few more recent examples of brands that are finding success with webisodes:

A look at fashion blogging

In April of this year, online fashion community launched “Lookbook: The Series.” Touted as an urban fairy tale about a fashion blogger and a photographer, the independently produced web series lives on the Lookbook website, where its 3 million unique monthly visitors can return again and again to view the latest episodes.

“We knew early on [that] video was going to be an important part of the online fashion landscape, and felt that to tell the story of fashion blogging in an original, fun, stylized way, we had to go in the opposite direction and create a scripted content series,” says Huan Nguyen, head of Brand Partnerships at Lookbook. “That approach has allowed us to offer our fans something totally different than the fashion video content out there and, in the long run, gives us many options on how to further develop the content.”

While the episodes were clearly devised to promote the Lookbook brand itself, the site also sells pre-roll ad space and adjacent display units. For example, Episode 3 is being sponsored by Victoria Secret brand Pink.

"Lookbook: The Series"
“Lookbook: The Series”

On the road to innovation

On the surface, it may seem that there’s little palpable connection between cars and food (aside, perhaps, from drive-throughs). We can, however, trace a path from auto brand Toyota to appealing lifestyle content, thanks to its latest foray into webisodes: “Appetite for Life.”

Back for a second season on, “Appetite for Life” is a series of five-minute webisodes that feature celebrity chef and TV host Andrew Zimmern. The show mirrors the eating-on-the-road format of Zimmern’s successful Travel Channel shows, following him as he travels in a Toyota Prius to meet with other chefs and foodie friends around the country.

On “Appetite for Life,” Zimmern’s mission is to find “forward-thinking foods,” and in doing so, he provides insight into current culinary trends. Herein lies the content hook: Consumers get entertaining, exclusive content and get to spend time with an established TV star. And while viewers may already be accustomed to seeing auto brands aligned with reality TV (Toyota is also a long-time sponsor of “Top Chef”), the information they receive in the form of entertainment far outweighs the overt presence of a saleable product every time.

Though Toyota receives the lion’s share of content voice, as the show’s sole sponsor, “Appetite for Life” sweetened the pot for viewers by partnering with nonprofit organization Feeding America, and encouraging online donations among the show’s viewers.

“Appetite for Life”

Inside a unique romance

If you didn’t catch Intel and Toshiba’s “The Beauty Inside” when it launched late last year, you’ve been missing out. This project combines the art of an online film with the content marketing power of episodic series and the reach and engagement value of social media.

“The Beauty Inside” is about a man named Alex who wakes up every day of his life in a different body. Between the prominent logos and the organic product placement of the film (for example, Alex uses his Toshiba laptop to create a video diary of his shifting physical identity), there’s no overlooking the show’s branding components. Yet consumers don’t seem to mind, as Intel and Toshiba have done two vital things right: They produced a series of superlative quality, and they cast fans as the various faces of Alex — an engaging way to boost engagement and participation among fans of both the brands and the series.

Split into six episodes that were distributed across multiple channels — including a microsite, a Facebook page, and a custom YouTube channel — the show was developed by Intel and Toshiba as a follow-up to their 2011 social media film experience, “Inside.” While the innovative “Inside” certainly generated its share of buzz, “The Beauty Inside” has received wider exposure as a branded content effort, and was recently nominated for a Webby Award.

"The Beauty Inside"
“The Beauty Inside”

3 essential tips for creating branded webisodes

Focus on story: Webisode fans (or brand consumers, for that matter) don’t want to spend their time online viewing extended commercials. So businesses that are interested in producing webisodes will need to create compelling characters and build them around a plot that will resonate with viewers outside the context of your brand. Start by selecting a genre (romance, mystery, horror, and so on), and work from there. You can’t have a successful web series without an enticing story that makes sense to consumers, whether they’re familiar with your brand or not.

Integrate value — not just branding: The characters in Lookbook’s web series drop hints on how best to use the site; Toshiba and Intel film tugged at viewers’ heartstrings; “Appetite for Life” informs viewers about the latest food trends. Whether the value in your series is emotional or more tangible (i.e., something consumers can use), it must have meaning and impact or improve their lives in some way. While consumers don’t necessarily expect this from traditional TV, if you hope to capture consumers’ attention with your branded webisodes, you’ll need to offer them something unique — something they can’t get from other entertainment formats.

Tie in social media: On the MSN microsite for “Appetite for Life,” viewers are invited to submit their favorite food pairings to an Instagram gallery and connect with the show through Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. “Lookbook: The Series” is on Facebook and Twitter too, and promotes sharing through Tumblr, StumbleUpon, and Google+. Even if you aren’t tying social media into the series itself (something “The Beauty Inside” does by posting Alex’s video diaries to YouTube), make sure to use a strong call to action, to remind viewers to share their love of your webisodes through their favorite social channels — often all it takes to trigger a desired action or conversion is a gentle push in the right direction.

For marketers enticed by the idea of producing their own branded content, an episodic web series could be a perfect fit. It’s original, it’s alluring, and it has staying power (one fan on “The Beauty Inside” Facebook page begged Intel and Toshiba to release the series as a DVD). This iteration of web-based television is growing up — and quickly coming into its own.

Looking for ideas that can help make your next branded content effort a standout success? Check out CMI’s eBook, 75 Examples to Spark Your Content Marketing Creativity.

Cover image via Bigstock.