Networks struggle with Web marketing

Strategists wrestle with Internet learning curve

As audiences grow more savvy about online marketing techniques, television networks are still figuring out how to make meaningful impressions.

They’ve tried everything from the bizarre (NBC.com’s “Bobblehead Bash,” where user-controlled bobbleheads of “The Apprentice” host Donald Trump and “The Office” assistant regional manager Dwight Schrute face off in a virtual boxing ring) to the badass (ABC’s “The Lost Experience,” an interactive storyline in which users uncovered mysteries not revealed on the actual show).

And so, leading up to television’s upcoming fall season, networks have been working overtime generating provocative new ways of attracting eyeballs.

“We’re starting to cross-pollinate different mediums,” CW executive veep of marketing and brand strategy Rick Haskins says. “It’s not just online anymore. It’s not just print.

We’re trying to make all the mediums work together.”

The CW, for example, is publicizing new series “Gossip Girl” via a nationwide contest coordinating snail mail, text messages and online. First, the weblet mailed out invitations to a “Kiss on the Lips” party, an integral part of the “Gossip” pilot episode. High schoolers then sign up online or send text messages to the series’ website. The schools with the most registrants win an actual “Kiss on the Lips” bash, just like in the show.

Similarly, ABC is capitalizing on the Internet’s ability to identify specific demographics, which in cyberspace go far beyond gender, age and ethnicity. Thanks to the proliferation of niche websites, marketers can distinguish groups according to personal tastes and preferences, helping to tailor more strategic promotions.

So, to drum up excitement for ABC’s “Pushing Daisies,” executive veeps of marketing Marla Provencio and Michael Benson used the marquee value of director Barry Sonnenfeld to pursue film buffs and movie enthusiasts.

“By going onto Fandango or Movies.com, we can reference the man who brought you ‘Men in Black’ and ‘The Addams Family,’ ” Provencio says. “We also had an in-theater trailer which ran the month of July (that) helped reinforce the idea that the show is theatrical in tone and would appeal to a person who loves the feel of the bigscreen.”

In addition, networks have made complete editions of several fall pilots available for online perusal.

Of course, online has limitations as well, especially when marketing new shows. ABC has learned this the hard way. Benson says ABC “tried to borrow a page from ‘Lost’ ” and apply it to new shows like last fall’s “Six Degrees” and “The Nine,” but neither campaign found the traction of “The Lost Experience.”

“For new shows, there’s little or no awareness,” Benson says. “So we’re starting to use online more as a reach vehicle rather than subversive, off-the-wall marketing.”

It’s also difficult to measure the effectiveness of online marketing. While click-throughs and cookies make it easier to track who’s interacting with campaigns, there’s no way to tell what actually drives viewers to a show.

“An online marketing campaign … is only a component of a robust launch campaign,” Provencio says. “(It) doesn’t make or break a show. What it can do is generate great word of mouth and create a viral buzz which can propel broad awareness and potential tune-in to the premiere.”