Fledging FanNation channel drives tune-in, live events

With YouTube doling out $100 million to content partners to create original programming for the site, many producers who landed that coin are still trying to figure out what to do with their new online real estate.

For WWE, the answer was simple: Use the WWE FanNation channel as a marketing tool to drive viewers back to its weekly TV shows and year-round slate of pay-per-views, while also building traffic for its own website, sales of toys, videogames, magazines and other merchandise.

In February, the company launched an initial slate of nine Web series featuring its talent. Shows like “WWE Inbox” and “Outside the Ring” have its wrestlers answer fan questions or reveal what their lives are like on the road. In “WWE Download,” Dolph Ziggler sarcastically comments on YouTube videos, while “Foreign Exchange,” is a comedic look at WWE hosted by Santino Morella.

“It’s another outlet for our superstars, where they can further develop their on-air personalities,” said WWE’s chief marketing officer Michelle Wilson. At the same time, it “gives fans a different view of what happens backstage and lets them get to know our superstars better with a sense of humor.”

WWE wants to keep its YouTube channel “separate and apart from the WWE Network” that it plans to launch later this year, Wilson said. It will not be an incubator or testing ground for new characters or even pilots for the WWE Network.

“When we’re looking at our business strategy, we’re in the content creation business,” she said. “YouTube provides us with another platform to monetize content. We’re viewing (the YouTube channel) as a promotional platform. It’s short-form content. It’s meant to be engaging and entertaining, but at the end of the day, it’s promotional content that’s meant to drive eyeballs back to TV.”

WWE is keeping an eye on what proves popular on the site, however, as a potential addition to its weekly TV shows. But WWE would rather test new concepts on its own network.

“What you need to be a successful TV show is very different than what works on YouTube,” Wilson said.

There are exceptions, however.

After Zack Ryder’s independently produced comedic web series “Z! True Long Island Story” took off with fans, it moved over to WWE’s YouTube channel and elements have been integrated into the wrestler’s storyline on WWE’s TV shows.When WWE was approached by YouTube on whether it was interested in launching a channel, the company quickly came back with pitches for 30 shows.

“It was a natural evolution for us,” Wilson said. “We do this every day of the week.”

YouTube already is seeing the amount of time users spend watching video on its sites growing considerably. In February, when WWE launched its channel, viewership rose 60% on YouTube, according to comScore, and channel subscriptions are up at least 50% since December.

In the weeks leading up to WWE’s “WrestleMania 28,” set to take place in Miami on Sunday, YouTube used its homepage to promote the high-profile PPV, headlined by the return of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to the ring to face off against John Cena.WWE wasn’t just one of the first companies to land YouTube dollars to launch a channel, however. The company has been a YouTube partner since it started offering full length episodes of “Monday Night Raw,” “Friday Night SmackDown,” “WWE NXT” and “WWE Superstars” on the site in 2010, when the online video giant started upping its efforts to attract better programming options. At the time, it was one of the first instances that YouTube featured complete episodes of primetime television programs on its site. WWE has been posting videos on YouTube since 2007, generating over 270 million streams of some of its videos.

In addition to broadening WWE’s exposure on the world’s largest online video site, “it’s really been fun for us,” Wilson said. “It strengthens our fanbase. This is a way that we can deliver our fans more of what they’re looking for.”

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