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Webisodes return, now as advertising

Posted by iNext - 2005-10-24

The Wyndales are a typical American sitcom family. Dad is a dolt, and his college-age rock musician son writes all about his pop's antics on his blog.
But don't look for the animated gang on television. The Wyndales are starring in an Internet series, with weekly webisodes that are meant to entertain - and sell health insurance.

Remember webisodes? Original minishows for the Internet were all the rage online before the Internet bubble burst in 2001. Now they're back, this time as advertising vehicles, courtesy of a robust online ad market and growing broadband audience.

EHealthInsurance's Am I Covered? (amicovered.com) made its debut last week. Today, Jeep's We Are The Mudds (wearethemudds.com) series premieres, joining other recent webisodes from Unilever's I Can't Believe It's Not Butter (tasteyoulove.com) and Target (oddsagainst7even.com.)

It was the popularity of blogs - web diaries - that motivated Jeep to give webisodes a try.

"We have been intrigued by the overpromise and under-delivery of blogs," says Jeff Bell, vice president of Chrysler's Jeep division. "Everybody's talking about them, but no one can show that blogs help sell products."

With ad agency Organic, Jeep came up with a campaign that showcases a fictional live-action family who are quite dirty - they're covered in mud. The biweekly Web shows feature the family vacationing with their new 2006 Jeep Commander. There are also games and a blog by the teen daughter.

"Webisodes have taken a different form now," says Organic's chief creative officer, Colleen DeCourcy. "They're no longer just content on the Internet, but a more sophisticated form of social networking: extended interaction and consumer participation."

The new webisodes share some common characteristics: Most have their own Web address and are designed to be discovered online through search advertising or "virally," the fast-moving Internet version of word-of-mouth.

Gary Lauer, CEO of eHealthInsurance, says he's spending $500,000 on this campaign, for production and search marketing, funds that would barely buy one or two network TV spots. "The beauty of doing it online is once you've paid for the production, you're done," he says. "We can push these shows out in a cost-effective way. For this kind of money, it's unheard of."

To get the word out about I Can't Believe It's Not Butter's Sprays of Her Life online soap-opera parody, Unilever spent nothing on advertising. The company simply sent e-mails to its list of customers, and watched traffic go up six times.

"This truly was a viral marketing campaign," says Hy Nguyen, associate brand manager for I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, which typically advertises on TV soaps. The storyline concerns the life and loves of animated vegetables that live inside a refrigerator.

"This is a great way to reach consumers where they live," says Nguyen. "Women are spending more time online."

In the bubble days, Hollywood talent such as director Tim Burton, actor Steve Martin and Simpsons writer Mike Reiss produced original webisodes for sites including Shockwave and the now-defunct Icebox.

But a lack of viewers and advertisers dried up production funds, and Hollywood went back to making TV shows and movies.

"Everyone got so scorched the first time around, it's not going to happen again," says Reiss, whose Queer Duck still webcasts in reruns on Showtime's website. "I see no evidence of this trend happening again in Hollywood. For advertisers, it makes sense though."

On that point, Charlene Li, an analyst at market tracker Forrester Research, concurs. Webisodes - as ad vehicles - are here to stay.

"The advertising dollars are there, so now the sky's the limit," she says.

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