Call it branded entertainment, advertising-as-content, or just brand-vertising: obviously inspired by TBS' veryfunnyads.com, which according to MediaPost claims more than 73 million views since launching last year, brands and advertisers are teaming up to push the envelope of online advertising even further. Recent example: Publicis Groupe, Droga5, and Digitas have joined forces to quietly launch what they had already announced in May this year--a site dubbed HoneyShed on which advertisers can air brand-specific programming. Clips can be shared by viewers via e-mail or embedded on blogs and other sites. HoneyShed also offers instant e-commerce: "I want it." The site is still in beta, and the demo spots currently on rotation--pretty goofy spoofs of infomercials--hint at what the agencies are hoping to establish here: a unique outlet for online brand-vertising that they can fully "own."
This is not the first attempt to challenge YouTube's gatekeeper position for viral video by establishing an alternative portal for sticky commercials closer to the original brand context. Microsoft and NBCU have launched Firebrand, an online and mobile platform to feature the "coolest" TV commercials. And NBCU's USA Network also plans to launch a site for new and classic TV spots next year. However, the branded portal spree may be a fad: Bud TV, Budweiser's proprietary user-generated entertainment channel, started off with high hopes that quickly diminished.
HoneyShed will face some daunting challenges, too. Having made it through the filter of the crowds, commercials with viral potential usually pop first on YouTube, and then float through the blogosphere. Only if HoneyShed manages to assert itself as a trusted destination for specialized branded entertainment, will it stand a chance to compete for a little piece of the large pie that the video portals own. To do so, it needs to build a critical mass of returning viewers. However, it is at least questionable--see Bud TV--whether there is more than just sporadic demand for brand-specific programming. I mean, one Sprite spot may be hilarious, but would you really want to have a regular feed of Sprite videos? For branded entertainment, you can reverse an old music biz proverb: it's the song and not the singer. Eyeballs are attracted by content, not brands. HoneyShed, therefore, must be either extremely good at curating content from myriad brands, or the brands themselves must be serious about becoming content companies.
The content shown on the site so far suggests the opposite. Sure, HoneyShed tries hard to tap into all the right trends: radical transparency (that is, blatant consumerism), social media features (social networking, embed/share capabilities), or conversational marketing (such as live chat facilities). But David Armano is right when he says that it still "feels like traditional advertising served up over the Internet."
If you want to talk about real innovation in online advertising, maybe life-casting is worth a look. Fast Company blogged about this awhile ago, and it's still a compelling idea: ads and product placements in live life-streams on networks like Justin.tv: "A Victoria's Secret shopping experience could be embedded onto the Web page where the video and chat are housed, with customers being enticed to click as each new outfit or item appears in the live video. The shopping experience would contain search functionality so that a customer could look up whichever item the current model is wearing and talking about."
For pessimists, this might mark the end of civilization (as we knew it), for web 2.0 acolytes it is an inevitable consequence of our new social media lifestyles: when social networking sites turn friends into business contacts and vice versa, when life-casts and mini-feeds exhibit each and every one of our acts and sentiments in real time, life itself might as well be utilized as the most powerful advertising format. To say that the boundaries between life and work, culture and commerce, private and public relations are becoming blurrier doesn't go far enough. They are not just becoming blurrier--these boundaries are in fact expanding as the new marketplaces for online interactions and transactions.