20 Oct 2017 13:14 IST

Wooing millennials in their natural habitat

A slew of web series integrated with brands is the new route to the mind of the urban young

Everybody loves a good laugh. And when comedy joins that buzzword of recent times, content, it can become a winning piece of marketing for brands. Pepsico has just launched a new web series 2By3, its first, where three students, who live in great filth, and an older married couple, are forced to share an apartment, negotiating TV rights as well as interpersonal relationships with a few doses of Kurkure thrown in. The characters might stuff their faces with the snack, but it’s not forced down the viewers’ throats.

2By3’s maker Pocket Aces dealt a similar light touch with brand integration in What The Folks, another web series it made for yoghurt brand Epigamia and self-drive car rental service Zoomcar. One of the first was Permanent Roommates made by digital entertainment channel The Viral Fever (TVF) in 2014, which property website CommonFloor associated itself with for the first season. Comedy is not the only genre web series employ, though it’s a popular one.

Ashwin Suresh, Founder, Pocket Aces, says 2016 is when “everyone got involved” with web series. He attributes the success of web series to the paucity of good TV shows in English and Hindi for the urban young.

The saas-bahu shows of the late nineties are for older and female audiences; while there are good news and reality shows, the gap in the fiction genre made youth turn to American shows and illegal downloads so “we said ‘let’s make the shows about them’”. Pocket Aces’ digital video unit Dice Media started off with Little Things, and went on to become one of the most successful shows on the Web in 2016.

So what’s different?

Vani Gupta, Marketing Director - Indian Snacks, Foods, PepsiCo, says there’s a difference between the way marketing is received on various media. In mass media, it’s consumed as an advertisement, but through a web series or other forms of content, the brand occupies a subliminal place in the consumer’s mind. “It has a lot more credibility than an ad,” she says.

Devendra Deshpande, Head – Content+, Mindshare, says content is prime, not the medium. It has to reflect the popular culture for that target group. “If I’m speaking to a young target group, it would be about friendship, dating, relationships, and so on,” he says. “You have to crack the right concept and customise it to the medium, be it TV, radio, Web or FB.” Mindshare is the co-creator of the 2By3 series.

How can brands harmonise product placement with the shows? “No one knows the right way of doing it,” says Dice Media’s Suresh. “We try to imagine where the brand has a natural fit.” Finding the right balance between entertainment and marketing is an ongoing effort, sometimes involving tugs of war with advertisers and agencies.

The critical difference between advertising and content marketing: With the latter, a lot of brands want to propagate their philosophy, create relevance and build loyalty, not sell their product, says Deshpande. He cites various web series such as No 1 Yaari Re, sponsored by McDowell’s No 1 Soda and Castrol Activ’s Girl in the City where episodes are devoid of product placement.

His views echo in Vani Gupta’s statement that content marketing offers heightened credibility. Kurkure, positioned as a family snack, deals with “deep societal issues” in a quirky and fun way. “In today’s context of millennials, your family is all those you spend time with – friends and colleagues included. 2By3 is all about two separate groups of people living together, which brings in the comfort of home kitchens and helps to foster relationships even with unknown people.”

Wooing millennial audiences is a concern for brands. For these digital denizens, content is the way to their hearts – and purses.

Related graphic: The bigger picture of the smaller screen

Mobile millennials

A recent study released by Ericsson ConsumerLab (see Datamine below) says over half of 16-19-year-olds watch on-demand content – and over 60 per cent of this lot watch TV and video on their mobile devices. On-demand viewing will soar all the way through to 2020, it says.

Metrics to gauge the effectiveness of web series go beyond the number of views. Engagement metrics such as time spent viewing, comments, brand recall, share of mind and brand lift do exceedingly well, says Suresh. Jewellery e-tailer Velvet Case has seen a 238 per cent growth in traffic since Little Things came out, he says, adding that web series send traffic to small brands. “They create real impact as viewers are invested in the characters and situations.”

Many comments by viewers on the web series pertain to the poor video quality. But proliferation of smartphones, plunging data costs, better broadband speeds and the arrival of 5G in 3-5 years is cause for optimism. “Moreover, YouTube and Facebook are doing a good job of sending data on low bandwidths,” remarks Suresh. A Kantar TNS ConnectedLife study last year said that Facebook (75 per cent) and YouTube (64 per cent) are the top two social media in India, through which brands find alternative ways of interacting with audiences.

SonyLIV, another digital entertainment player, has just launched House Proud, showing makeovers for homes in association with Asian Paints and home accessories e-tailer CuroCarte. Uday Sodhi, EVP and Head – Digital Business, SonyLIV, says web series are a win-win for the advertiser and the consumer. “There’s very little wastage as the brand can directly reach its target group,” as opposed to TV where an ad can be beamed to millions but not matter to them.

Web series can be monetised by brands and by subscription, but Sodhi says the former is more popular. Pocket Aces also earns revenue by syndicating its content to various over-the-top (OTT) players, Ola Cabs, Etihad and Jet, sells merchandise based on the series and has even struck a book deal with Penguin Random House for a book based on Little Things.

OTT players are launching their own web series that need subscriptions and app downloads. "However, it is difficult to get users to download and consistently use their apps given that Facebook, YouTube, e-commerce, ride-sharing and food delivery apps already occupy precious space on their smartphones," says Suresh. Furthermore, a fragmented ecosystem is not aligned with user behaviour. When there are too many options to choose from, people are not likely to subscribe to multiple platforms -- that's why torrent sites have become so popular; one central destination for any content! Ultimately, there will be a shakedown and only a few top OTT players will survive, he predicts.

Greater connect

Rajiv Dingra, Founder and CEO of digital and social media agency WATConsult, says the investments in web series are set to grow. The 1-7-minute-long digital videos that marked the earlier stage of content marketing failed to create long-term engagement with consumers. “Brands are seeing opportunity in a longer-duration exercises,” he says, explaining that web series are perceived as edgy and entertaining. “Every niche can be targeted,” and marketers have more assurance of reaching relevant audiences.

Earlier this year, the Meaningful Brands study by advertising group Havas declared that 60 per cent of content created by brands is just clutter, that consumers wouldn’t care if 74 per cent of the brands they use disappeared, and that customers are willing to pay more for brands that provide solutions, experiences, entertainment, and events. “Meaningfulness” in brand marketing can increase wallet share up to nine times, it said. Though there are no studies to discuss the efficacy of this nascent phenomenon yet in India, the effort has certainly begun.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)