Branded Entertainment Mythbusters

Branded content is king. Or at least it’s making a serious play as the “go to” online platform for advertisers. The interest in branded content is higher than ever: This year, brands will spend 20 percent more on online video advertising than they did in 2010, and total video ad spend is projected to reach $5.5 billion by 2014, five times last year’s total. My company, Break Media, created 200 branded entertainment videos last year, and we expect that number to double in 2011.

Despite its rapid growth, branded entertainment is still often misunderstood by the very advertisers footing the bill. Brands agree that good viral campaigns are an effective means of getting their message out there, but they still buy into many myths and misconceptions about how to get there. Well, let the debunking begin!

Myth #1: If you put it online, it will grow

Too often, advertisers treat the Internet like a craps table. They put a little down on YouTube, (s GOOG) a little down on their own site, maybe send out a few tweets, start a Facebook page, and then hope that the Gods of Virility will smile down on them. These brands are relying solely on the strength of their content and luck to drive views and create an audience, and not on the effectiveness of a good distribution strategy.

Many great campaigns have suffered needlessly due to faulty distribution and promotion. One of my favorites branded series is Teva’s The Naturist, which chronicles the hilarious misadventures of the worst outdoorsmen ever. Anyone who watched this video web series loved it. Unfortunately, there weren’t many of us. According to the view count on its YouTube channel, the average video received less than 10,000 streams. They could have been better served if they’d placed the video in online environments where this style of sarcastic humor is more likely to flourish.

Myth #2: You have to do a series

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that serializing content was the most effective and cost-efficient way to market a brand online. This assumption seems sound: More content and more bang for the buck results in more views. Right?

Sometimes this works out brilliantly. Pamper’s A Parent is Born campaign, for example, was a successful web series that chronicled the lives of a real-life couple going through pregnancy. But without strong characters and a story arc that can provide multiple messages, it can be tough to get a web series to catch fire. It’s hard enough getting a brand-less original content series to work online; throw in an advertising hook, and it becomes even more challenging.

What’s wrong with a one-off, or a series of one-offs? Last year, Toyota came out with the brilliant Swagger Wagon rap and immediately hit online gold with more than 10 million views. There was no follow-up rap, no continuation of the characters and theme. It was a one-hit viral wonder. Why did this video work? A) It was really funny; B) one video like this is much easier to share via email, Facebook, Twitter, than several videos rolled out over a long flight date; and C) taste-making social bookmarking sites like Digg, Reddit, and Buzzfeed focus on one-offs and not series. Sometimes you don’t need to do a series of 10 videos when you can create one very special video that can potentially live on the Internet forever.

Myth #3: Premium content requires premium budgets

Digital production companies have been forced to keep costs down not because they particularly want to, but because of the economic realities of online advertising. Gone are the days of costly development and talent invented by the traditional TV and film studios. Digital studios have adopted a much more efficient model and have streamlined the production process based on the facts of the online ecosystem — and they’ve gotten pretty darn good at it.

It turns out you don’t need to spend six figures to create broadcast-quality content. If you take a quick scan through some of the content online these days, you’ll see a lot of examples of high-quality videos that could just as easily have premiered on HBO (s twx) or at a theater near you. Because online video has become so synonymous with cheap, grainy user-generated content, brands have come to expect an inferior product. But digital studios are able to create premium content more efficiently than a traditional commercial TV spot. This is partially due to the fact that video technology just keeps getting better, and it’s being utilized to produce some very impressive digital campaigns.

Myth #4: Celebrities guarantee success

We know celebrities generate offline dollars, but the verdict is still out on whether the same A-list talent can drive online views. Funny or Die has had some success with original celebrity content and, if the rumors are true, Google (s goog) may invest heavily in celebrity content with its reported plans to invest $100 million in enticing Hollywood talent to build YouTube channels. But several celebrity forays into the branded space have been less fruitful. Jason Bateman and Will Arnett’s Orbit campaign failed to catch fire, while Bobby Flay and Jeremy Piven have also had some misfires in the branded space.

There have been many exceptions. My Damn Channel’s Easy to Assemble Ikea campaign with Illeana Douglas earned big numbers, Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifinakis is the greatest thing ever, and the Black Mamba with Kobe Bryant is tracking well. But by and large, online audiences don’t seem to warm to celebrity spokespeople online as they do in other media. They prefer the cast of The Annoying Orange to the cast of Fox’s Arrested Development (s nws).

Myth #5: You need to put the brand before the entertainment

Far too often, brand marketers feel an almost reflexive need to make their product or whatever they’re selling the main character in their online campaigns. This makes perfect sense considering that’s the way it’s been done on television for more than 50 years. But the Internet is a different beast. Users have more choices about what they watch, and they’re more suspicious and cynical about being sold to.

In order to reach this audience, you need to create messaging more organic to the site and the audience you’re targeting. Branded entertainment isn’t as much about selling the brand as it is about selling the “coolness” factor of the brand. How do you do this? First and foremost you need to entertain. Once you’re sure you’ve accomplished that, you can address integrating your brand message in a way that’s subtle, even tongue in cheek. That is part of the brilliance of Old Spice’s Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign. It is so over-the-top, so blatantly commercial, that audiences embraced it in huge numbers. Old Spice is in on the joke, winking along with everyone.

It’s encouraging to see a lot of brands out there doing branded entertainment right — experimenting, seeking out new and innovative approaches, and trusting new media models rather than the established rules of traditional media. But this is still a relatively new medium, in which the rules for what works and what doesn’t work are being rewritten every day. There are bound to be misfires and a steep learning curve. One would hope, however, that we can also learn from our mistakes.

Jonathan Small is SVP of Editorial and Programming for independent web video producer Break Media He oversees the daily operations of as well as MadeMan, GameFront, HolyTaco, ScreenJunkies, CagePotato, AllLeftTurns, Chickipedia, and TuVez. As head of the Creative Lab, Break’s in-house production studio, Jon leads a team of experienced writers, editors, directors, and producers in creating original videos that range from award-winning branded entertainment to celebrity-driven web shorts to viral one-offs.