How Do You Measure the Value of a Branded Web Series?

In the web series world, creators often rely on brands to get their content funded. The level of branding in a series varies wildly, from characters on The Guild occasionally using Sprint phones to Illeana Douglas working at an Ikea, but much like in the early days of television, the “Presented By” tag is ever present.
It’s not hard to see how creators benefit from this relationship, as partnering with a brand means a reliable source of cash to put a project into production; it’s not a gamble like many independent productions can be. But I’ve often wondered why brands sign up for these series — and, specifically, how those brands measure their return on investment. Can you put a price on word-of-mouth? Turns out the answer is yes.
Wilson Cleveland of CJP Digital has made a name for himself as a producer of branded content; his first show, The Temp Life, is heralded as one of the first-ever branded web series, and since then he’s produced shows for brands including Trident, the Better Sleep Council and Spherion.
And in working with brands, he’s created a formula by which the actual monetary value of a branded web series can be measured for the brand. “We’re in a position to calculate a different kind of ROI than ad plays and impressions,” Cleveland said via phone. The basic purpose is to evaluate things from an earned media perspective.
For example, Cleveland has a new web series, Leap Year, premiering this Tuesday Monday on Hulu. The show, produced with Attention Span Media and Yuri Baranovsky’s Happy Little Guillotine Films, depicts a contest between five startups (founded by five friends), all competing for a half million dollars in funding. The show is sponsored by Hiscox Small Business Insurance, stars Baranovsky, Cleveland and The Bannen Way‘s Mark Gantt, and includes appearances by Guy Kawasaki, Gary Vaynerchuk and Mashable editor-in-chief Adam Ostrow.
I just spent a paragraph describing the show, along with an embedded version of the trailer. In doing the math for Hiscox, Cleveland would calculate the value of that mention by measuring the “column inches” I devoted to it in this piece, and then use GigaOM’s ad rates to determine how much it would have cost to actually buy an ad of comparable size on our site. A media mention in a bigger publication, like Fast Company or The Hollywood Reporter? It’d be worth more.
Other metrics that come into play include social media stats like Facebook fans. Social media strategy firm Vitrue recently developed a valuation that determined the value of one Facebook fan to be $3.60. Leap Year, as of last Friday, had 4,373 people following it on Facebook — that’s a value of $15,742.80 in marketing dollars.
In addition, every view of Leap Year will count as an advertising impression for Hiscox, as each episode begins with a full-frame “Presented By” mention for the company. (It’s also the closest Leap Year gets to in-show branding.)
This sort of measurement has evolved out of the PR world — but things work differently when a branded series is being managed by an ad agency. An ad agency, according to Cleveland, will guarantee a certain number of impressions to to a client (which may or may not include “buying” views with auto-playing ads).
But when a branded series is treated like a PR initiative, there’s more risk but potentially greater reward. Cleveland, who managed distribution and marketing for the second season of Easy to Assemble, said that through the collective efforts of the entire ETA team, Season 2 of the IKEA-branded series generated $80 million worth of publicity for the Swedish furniture company. The actual budget for the show was much, much less.
Cleveland’s methods are specific to his approach, but there’s a core element that carries through across all branded productions. For example, Scotty Iseri (of Scotty Got An Office Job fame) produced the holiday-themed web series Merry Holidays for help desk startup Zendesk.
With approximately 35,000 views, it wasn’t a smash success — but 27 percent of those who watched clicked through to the Zendesk site. In addition, they received a 48 percent uptick in unique hits and 22 percent more Facebook fans, plus press mentions on Boing Boing, and other sites that might not have otherwise covered the B2B company.
“To me it was an issue of small audience, but the right audience,” Iseri said via email.
The key for Cleveland is telling stories that are “tangentially relevant to what the client does” — which is why a series sponsored by a job placement site is about temping, and a series sponsored by a small business insurance company is about the founding of start-ups. “It’s a visual narrative illustration of whatever PR story they want to tell,” he said.