Magazine

Designs On The Disaffected


Procrastination 2.0: The business model. Don't laugh. It's driving Time Inc.'s (TWX) newest and strangest launch, the Web site Office Pirates, a big-league play for a kind of disaffected young man who's glued to his office computer.

This guy is a pop-culture freak who gravitates toward "crashes, explosions, girls, craziness, obscenity, blah blah blah," says Simon Assaad, CEO of heavy.com. (Heavy.com, which features short videos ranging from scabrous cartoons to swimsuit fashion shoots, has a channel entitled Crashes and Explosions.) He spends hours trolling sites like Viacom's (VIA) iFilm.com, which lets users post and view video clips. When he finds something there he likes -- say, Star Trek's William Shatner murdering Elton John's Rocket Man -- he sends a link to his friends.

Guys like him made Andy Samberg a star. Samberg became a new "featured player" on Saturday Night Live this season, which roughly translates as "glorified benchwarmer." Then he co-conceived and co-starred in a short, spectacularly entertaining rap video, Lazy Sunday. Within hours of airing last Dec. 17, it hit sites like iFilm and youtube.com and became an immediate "viral video" hit. Within weeks the video had been played more than 5 million times on youtube alone, and Samberg appeared on David Letterman and Conan O'Brien.

VIRAL VIDEOS ONCE were, you know, videos -- blips of bizarreness copied and traded on VHS tapes. The Web destroyed this distribution bottleneck. That destruction enabled Samberg's fame, and it's why Time Inc. launched Office Pirates. Office Pirates is atypical for Time -- launched quietly, promoted sparingly. It has but five full-time staffers. It hit the Web on Feb. 22 with exactly two advertisers, Bacardi and Dodge Caliber. No more have signed on since. It is very off-brand for the world's largest magazine publisher, which has never before targeted the ever-feel-like-killing-your-boss crowd. One short video shows a customer-service rep seated in front of a thought-bubble graffito pleading "Kill me," and another features a postcollegiate type itching to shoot his clueless boss. There are mock motivational posters and links to weird Web sites, and users can submit their own content.

It's deeply perverse (in the good way) and looks good on paper by fusing favored Web modes of the moment: communities, user-created content, and eagerly shared short-form video. The idea is that elusive young men will flock to the site and turbocharge it via their own programming and word of mouth. Low-cost means quick profit, or a fast exit. And some big-name advertisers, sweating over disintegrating ad models, are receptive to such nascent media formats. Young men "feed like sharks" on ribald, short-form online content, says Dodge marketing executive Mark Spencer. "We are there because they are there."

It's admirable for Time Inc. to try something this bizarre, so it's a drag that Office Pirates seems very version-1.0. The programming is wildly inconsistent. What's perverse for Time Inc. is not perverse for the Web, and so it lies between freer-form sharing sites like youtube and gnarlier programming plays such as heavy.com (which is also readying a community platform). Office Pirates plasters its offerings with its name and logo. But for such content to work, "it's got to be organic and be emanating from something that doesn't appear to be overly commercialized," warns Laura Desmond, CEO of media buying firm MediaVest USA.

Lazy Sunday took off organically. But when Samberg made another SNL video in March, starring Natalie Portman as a foul-mouthed gangsta rapper, it made a much smaller cultural splash. Office Pirates' "plan does not bank on the idea of becoming a serial creator of these outrageously serendipitous viral events," counters Time Inc. Interactive President Ned Desmond. Fair enough. But there's one thing about programming for procrastinators: If they don't see what they want on Office Pirates, they have all the time in the world to find it elsewhere.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine


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