In a move that expands its potential for online branded entertainment deals, Microsoft Corp.'s MSN has renamed its custom-publishing division to the MSN branded entertainment experiences team, doubled its staff and increased its budget, according to the company. (Simultaneously, the company is rolling out a beta version of its own search-engine advertising system overseas. The new system directly targets ad-search market share leaders Yahoo and Google is said to include important demographic functions neither competitor currently has.)
On the Madison & Vine front, Chief Media Officer Joanne Bradford said that while the group already handles a number of branded entertainment clients, it will now focus more on entertainment-type Web sites, instead of merely creating interactively rich online experiences for marketers.
"Advertisers are really trying to find another way to break through," Bradford said, and the division "will build experiences that integrate advertising and content."
40 top consumer brands
She said the group has worked with 40 of the top consumer brands on about 30 campaigns. Current efforts handled by the team include Gillette's sponsorship of an "In Your Face" contest to choose the top plays of the year on MSN's FoxSports channel; an American Express placement on the MSN Music area; and a special section devoted to edgy, innovative technology ideas that features a number of tabs for the innovations, including one for Nissan's luxury auto brand, Infiniti.
Two soon-to-be-announced campaigns are for Sprite, featuring animated character Miles Thirst, and top radio DJs and their playlists on MSN Music; and for Volkswagen.
MSN's expansion and new aggressiveness in the online Madison & Vine space is a direct challenge to Yahoo, whose reputation as a top content provider was boosted even further by the recent hiring of ABC Entertainment Television Group's former chairman, Lloyd Braun.
Braun's biggest move since being appointed last November was just that -- he is relocating Yahoo's entertainment operations to Hollywood and has garnered publicity for branded-entertainment deals with Mark Burnett's TV programmes such as The Apprentice and The Contender.
For example, video clips, replays and outtakes of The Contender featured on Yahoo include advertising from the show's primary sponsors, such as Toyota. Doing so not only provides Yahoo with an additional revenue stream, but also gives a TV show's promotional sponsor additional opportunities to reach customers -- in this case, the millions of people who visit Yahoo's stable of Web sites.
MSN's strategy has always been to sell Microsoft technology across the Internet and beyond to the digital home and wired world. "They don't have a Lloyd Braun. But being able to build and aggregate this stuff has them playing in Yahoo's territory," said Greg Smith, executive vice president director of insight, planning and data intelligence at Carat Interactive. "They are saying to advertisers, 'We can create a destination for users.'"
The branded entertainment push is an investment in advertising, which provided a majority of MSN's revenue last year, pointed out Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at online market research firm Jupiter Research, who monitors Microsoft. But the portal still clings to its technological DNA. "Just look at MSN Video -- the content and the ads showcase the technology (of the video tool) because it's Microsoft technology," Wilcox said.
Growing sales of rich media ads
The branded play is also an investment in a growing area of online advertising.
Rich media (the use of sight, sound and motion in online ads, which branded placements typically contain) is expected to comprise 9.5 per cent of the $11.5 billion spent on online advertising this year, according to online market research firm eMarketer. "But when you assume that most rich media is for branding [like branded entertainment], then the rich media growth will be more like 25 per cent of the online advertising spend," said David Hallerman, senior analyst at eMarketer.