Study: A Look at Branded Web Series and If They Actually Work
It’s February, which means that you’ve probably already given up on your New Year’s resolution.
Not so for the characters of NikeWomen’s new branded web series, Margot vs. Lily. The series follows two sisters who made a New Year’s bet to see whether the sedentary sister could create a YouTube fitness channel with 1,000 subscribers while the other, whose life is already dedicated to her own successful fitness channel, must make three friends. The series is the latest example of a trend sweeping across the advertising landscape: original branded web series.
Despite the brand name appearing in the credits—as well as an occasional swoosh on the actors’ clothing—there aren’t many explicit signs that suggest the series is a marketing effort. When you look at the creative team behind the production, this isn’t surprising. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the Emmy-nominated director of American Horror Story: Coven and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, produced the series. Tricia Brock, who worked on critically acclaimed series such as Orange Is the New Black and Girls, directed. One of the leading actors, Samantha Marie Ware, was also a recurring guest on Glee.
As more brands recruit veteran TV creatives into their content creation efforts, it’s natural to see more and more branded web series. But the question still remains: Do these actually work?
In this report, we’ll look at the numbers behind some recent branded web series, what it takes to attract an audience, and the major challenges brands typically face when taking on TV.
By the numbers
One of the most obvious differences between a branded web series and a regular TV series is length. A typical web series episode only runs about three-and-a-half minutes, regardless of genre, while a regular half-hour sitcom calls for 22 minutes of content plus commercials.
The average number of views for an episode of a branded series sits at around 225,000. This might be a far cry from the 14.63 million viewers who watched The Walking Dead season premiere last October, but it’s well above the average of 9,816 views for entertainment videos on YouTube, according to data from Tubular, a video analytics platform.
It’s important to note that the median number of views, however, is closer to 3,000, suggesting that there’s a decent amount of variance among the shows I studied. The same goes for the difference in the average and median for likes and dislikes. When it comes to episode durations, the difference between mean and median is less substantial.
Keep in mind that these numbers aren’t the endgame—they merely depict what a typical branded web series looks like right now. These stats may change as more brands start developing their own shows, each with specific marketing and branding goals.
Overall, variance is to be expected. Certain brands will have more notoriety and recognition than others. And some brands interested in web series have specific goals that don’t call for a mass audience. More views are great in general, but not everyone needs millions of views on each episode to be successful.
To find these numbers on how branded series work, I looked at the YouTube stats of 265 branded series episodes from 15 different brands and shows, including their trailers and bonus episodes.
I focused exclusively on YouTube stats for a few reasons. Most importantly, the data is public and easily accessible. The featured brands also typically embedded their YouTube videos on microsites and social media campaigns, making YouTube the primary source. While this data set doesn’t include all the branded series ever released, it covers a variety of brands from large corporations like GE to smaller businesses like The Hundreds and Bullfrog Spas.
If interested, you can view all my data here.
Views decline over time
In my analysis of the data, I found a few intriguing trends. On average, trailers had five times more views than the average episode in a series, which could be because its the video the brands promote the most through pre-roll and other paid channels. If a trailer performs well, temper your expectations—the engagement might not trickle down to the rest of the series.
In fact, the data shows that the number of views will decrease for each subsequent episode. Twelve of the fifteen branded web series I profiled had a downward trend of YouTube views. Comparing the first and final episodes of each of these twelve series, I found that the final episodes had 24 percent fewer views on average compared to the season opener.
The exceptions include Armani’s Films of City Frames, in which all the episodes of a single season were released on the same day. The other series that didn’t follow the downward trend are Glacéau Fruit Water’s Seriously Distracted and McDonald’s Our Food, Your Questions.
One possible explanation for the success of Seriously Distracted and Our Food, Your Questions is that the episodes are listed in reverse order in their YouTube playlists, which means the most recent episode plays first rather than last. The brands may have also put money behind later episodes to boost traffic or these series could have received more media coverage after they already debuted.
Bonus episodes = diminishing returns
Of the brands I studied, a few decided to produce bonus episodes that include behind-the-scenes footage or additional short scenes. For instance, here is a minute-long clip from Seriously Distracted, which shows one of the characters, Lily—played by Morgan Grace Jarrett of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade—talking about her passion projects and Glacéau Fruit Water.
While these bonus clips still bring in views, they perform below average relative to the other episodes for their respective series, generating only about 30 percent of the views for an average episode. Given this data, it’s not advisable for a brand to go out of its way to produce bonus episodes unless it’s absolutely relevant to company goals. It would be better to just repurpose unused material in the regular episodes.
As for the number of episodes per series, it’s possible that they affect the overall views of a series. I found that there is a moderate negative correlation between the number of views and the total number of episodes. This means that although adding more episodes might seem like a good tactic to add more views, these additional episodes might just bring in diminishing returns.
If you check out the complete data set, you’ll notice that a few outliers generated tens of millions of total views: #PassionProject from American Express and McDonald’s Our Food, Your Questions. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact tactics that drew viewers to these shows, it’s possible that additional press coverage helped, especially for McDonald’s. The series was covered by The New Yorker, Time, and The Motley Fool—all of which criticized the brand for using the series to dodge legitimate consumer concerns, instead offering a sanitized peek into the company’s factories. Paid promotion was also likely a factor
(Full disclosure: American Express is a Contently client.)
#PassionProject, unlike the other series on the list, wasn’t a standalone effort that earned some extra views exclusively due to social media, PR campaigns, and ads. The campaign for the series included a contest where customers were encouraged to submit their own ideas for passion projects in exchange for a chance to win gift cards worth $2,000. Since the contest had 10 winners every month from June to December, in 2013, it was a long campaign that was covered by Fast Company and Business Insider, with both publications referring to it as a “Kickstarter” for funding passion projects. It’s possible that this interactive element of the series helped pique the interest of aspiring entrepreneurs and creatives that American Express wanted to reach.
These two outliers show us that when it comes to branded web series, some elements will ultimately be out of your control, including how your target audience perceives the show. It’s important to remember that not all views are created equally—some viewers will be devoted fans, some may be critical, and others might just be curious people who click before bouncing quickly. The important thing is to create content that both fulfills your brand goals and delights your target audience.
While there’s no exact formula for creating a hit show, there are some ways a brand can set up a show for success. It helps if your series stars people or features stories that are already popular. In Ericsson’s Capturing the Networked Society, a documentary series about the positive effects of internet connectivity, the most viewed episode on YouTube is “Case 27: @TunaMeltsMyHeart.”
The episode features Courtney Dasher and her dog Tuna, a cute Chihuahua-Daschund. Known for his endearing overbite, Tuna currently has 1.8 million Instagram followers. When Dasher shared a link to the video on Tuna’s Instagram account, the post received over 64,000 likes and 2,200 comments.
“When [Dasher] posts something, a lot of people are listening and engaging with her story,” said Ben de Vries, vice president of brand management at Ericsson. “The networks of the people within the cases we feature are also important for extended reach. Many cases are really inspirational and we use them a lot in our storytelling across channels.”
In the case of Tuna and Dasher’s episode, it had three times more views than the average episode in the series.
Most brands seem to recognize the extended reach that influencers can bring. The most viewed episode of Dunkin’ Donuts’ #Dunksgiving series features New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. This episode gained five times more views than the average installment in the series.
Rather than applying this principle to one episode, however, Marriott International’s Moxy Hotels brand took it a step further, relying on YouTube stars throughout the series Do Not Disturb, which is hosted by YouTube comedienne Taryn Southern.
(Full disclosure: Marriott is a Contently client.)
According to Vicki Poulos, Global Brand Director at Moxy Hotels, this partnership with YouTube celebrities is all about creating content that aligned with their guests’ interests.“Moxy is working with YouTube influencers and the YouTube creator audience at large because they align well with our target audience,” she said.
In each episode of Do Not Disturb, Southern interviews a different guest in a Moxy Hotels suite. Southern herself has over 450,000 subscribers on TarynTV, her YouTube channel. Her first guest on the show, Flula, has over 750,000 subscribers.
But this approach isn’t just about borrowing a celebrity’s extended reach—it’s about working with partners who embody the brand. “We ask ourselves, would these partners stay at a Moxy hotel if they were traveling in their personal lives? We want the collaboration and partnership to be authentic,” Poulos explained.
The right metrics for your goals
One advantage of a branded web series is that, unlike a traditional TV series or an ad spot, you can track much more than just views. The trick is in figuring out which metrics will work for your goals.
For Do Not Disturb, the series was more of a branding play rather than an attempt to directly increase sales, conversions, or site traffic. Specifically, the brand aimed to reach millennials. “Our goal was to produce engaging content that builds communities of people passionate about travel that will drive them to consider Moxy,” Poulos said.
Because of the young target audience, it made sense for the Do Not Disturb creative team to focus on social media statistics. According to research from the Pew Internet Project, 89 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Internet users are active social networking sites. “Rather than investing a large budget into paid media, we decided to focus on authentic and viral exposure through social media promotion and earned media,” Poulos said.
The brand measured the number of mentions on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, which increased by 167 percent from the previous quarter.
Image provided by Moxy Hotels
Though paid campaigns weren’t a priority, Moxy Hotels didn’t abstain from them altogether. The team launched a paid Instagram campaign promoting the show, which brought in an additional 244,000 views to their series on top of the existing 44,000 organic views. While the brand got a lot of mileage out of influencer reach, the paid campaign was what helped Moxy hit its goal for views.
Additionally, as a result of the series, the average time spent on the Marriott YouTube channel increased from 43 seconds in the previous quarter to two minutes and 54 seconds during the campaign—a 270 percent increase. One might assume that an increase like this could be expected with the introduction of a branded web series, but in the previous quarter, Marriott had already uploaded a five-episode animated series called Hot Shoppe as well as a handful of standalone videos including a seven-minute documentary on Chicago’s pinball scene. The increase suggests that the introduction of Do Not Disturb specifically moved the needle for the rest of the channel that quarter.
Image provided by Moxy Hotels
Traditional PR metrics were used as well, such as PR impressions based on the sites and media outlets that covered the launch of the series. Since Do Not Disturb was covered by Mashable, People, and Skift, the press led to more than 38.4 million PR impressions.
There are certainly other stats that you could account for, such as using surveys to measure brand lift, brand affinity, or viewer loyalty. For the videos themselves, you can also go beyond views and engaged time by tracking how many of your site visitors end up playing a video or how many of them click on a call-to-action button. The metrics you choose should depend mostly on your goals and your audience rather than what other brands are doing.
Don’t limit yourself to numbers
While the right metrics can help you quantify the success of your campaign, there are other creative and qualitative ways to measure progress. For example, for Capturing the Networked Society, Ericsson tracked how many companies reached out as a result of the campaign.
Fredrik Magnusson, Ericsson’s director of brand design and experience, told Marketing Magazine that the brand saw an increase of direct outreach from entrepreneurs who were interested in the ideas presented in the series. “We’re seeing that we have reached out very well to the audiences that we have missed before, so we are getting traction much more in the entrepreneur and tech innovator scene than we had before,” Magnusson said.
Image provided by Moxy Hotels
Moxy Hotels, meanwhile, included the YouTube and Instagram comments on Do Not Disturbas part of the series’ success, even if these comments weren’t exactly qualitative. This type of data might not provide the same precision as certain metrics, but it’s important for any brand to know and understand the conversations that are taking place around their content.
Despite the potential for widespread success, a branded web series is usually a high-stakes game. After all, video production is extremely expensive. Although initial reports on Chipotle’s Farmed and Dangerous web series claimed that the budget was roughly $250,000 per episode, Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s chief marketing and development officer, disputed this in an interview with The New Yorker. He said that the budget was similar to high-quality cable TV scripted shows, with per-episode costs that were “quite a bit more than that.”
Still, there’s hope for brands that don’t have seven-figure budgets for episodic video. Bullfrog Spas, a hot tub manufacturer in Utah, produced The Principal, a series of 12 episodes that were each shorter than five minutes. According to a TCS profile, Bullfrog Spas kept the expenses to a minimum by working with talented local filmmakers as well as in-house employees who had previous filmmaking experience. It also helped that the company filmed in a single location and hustled to shoot everything in one week.
In other words, even small brands can get in on the game if they find creative workarounds to keep the costs down.
As more brands continue to pursue web series, we’ll get the chance to fully understand this medium and see how different elements affect viewership. Will hiring veteran TV and film actors attract a broader audience than online video stars? Will audiences watch longer stories that resemble the TV sitcoms and dramas they’re accustomed to? Also, as premium streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and now YouTube Red fortify their statuses as go-to entertainment channels, will we see more brands on these platforms as well?
Since short episodes and seasons appear to be effective for now, today’s barrier to entry is low enough for most brands to experiment, even if they can’t go after pricey Hollywood talent or afford to spend weeks shooting a single episode. After all, even the smallest shows can be considered successful as long as the right audience tunes in.