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AT&T Reaches Out to Connect ‘Riverdale’ Fans With Extra CW Content

Kevin Keller, the milk-drinking teen from the CW series “Riverdale,” makes for an unlikely candidate to save Madison Avenue. He’s going to try anyway.

Keller – or more specifically, an Instagram account devoted to him – stands as one of the newer methodologies being tested in the ever-expanding battle to mix commercials with content. Since January, a mere 19 posts on the photo-sharing site from @thekevinthwonder have wooed 122,000 followers. AT&T intends for that number to grow.

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Starting March 14, the telecommunications giant will run promos on the CW during the Archie Comics-inspired drama urging viewers to check out the character’s Instagram postings (Viewers will also see Keller using a phone and get the hint that a visit to the social-media site will let them get a look at some video he shot). The idea is that AT&T is facilitating the extended visit to “Riverdale.” All the parties involved think the marketing arrangement works better in a moment when viewers have grown weary of a constant barrage of traditional TV ads and appreciate how digital outlets feature fewer commercials, and sometimes none.

The idea is to “add to the experience rather than intrude on it,” says Marc Burns, vice president of advertising and social media for AT&T’s mobility and entertainment group. “Oftentimes, marketing is intrusive at the moment when a consumer doesn’t appreciate it.”

Could ‘a few words from our sponsor’ be detrimental in the current environment? If so, action might carry the day.

“Having brands underwrite specific types of content is taking sponsorship to a different level,” says Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of 360i, a Dentsu-backed agency that specializes in digital marketing. “I don’t think you’re going to see a hard shift from on-air to the second screen – it’s still the second one, right? But having a little bit more of a ‘surround sound’ so you don’t miss an opportunity is worth the consideration.”

AT&T’s overall emphasis is not on the in-show appearance of its ad pitch, but on striking a connection between the show’s fans and some extra content. “Fans want to learn more about characters and their stories,” says Barbra Robin, senior vice president of integrated sales and marketing at the CW.  Advertisers are starting to realize “fans react better and embrace them if they are giving them more of what they love rather than talking to them about the product.”

The advertising world has certainly been filled with previous gambits that help consumers read more news or see more scenes from a show thanks to Advertiser X or Sponsor Y. Acura is among the marketers that have allowed people to read the online Wall Street Journal for a period of time without having a subscription. American Express once made an exclusive series of minutes-long episodes related to Fox’s “24” available to its cardholders.

After getting CW viewers to reach out, however, AT&T intends to withdraw its touch. The Kevin Keller Instagram is put together by writers from the show and will feature no AT&T messaging (people who leave comments can, of course, note the relationship on their own). The current posts show other “Riverdale” characters like Cheryl Blossom and commentary from Kevin. Yes, there is also a glass of milk. And another one of a hot dog.

The CW launched the character on Instagram in January with a handful of prepared posts, says Robin, the CW executive, and within weeks found he had 50,000 followers – without any promotion. Kevin Keller is lighter than his fellow characters, she says, and has more flexibility to have fun online.  That has to continue. “If we put any AT&T messages in the Instagram handle, it would break the relationship” already in place with fans, says Robin.  “Everyone understood that isn’t where we wanted to go.”

For AT&T, the concept helps the company make good on its new slogan: “More for your thing.” If you haven’t seen its ads (from Omnicom Group agency BBDO) in the Olympics and other sporting events telling viewers the company helps them connect to anything from “Game of Thrones” to virtual reality, hey, that’s your thing.

AT&T has spent the past five or six months working with CW and its media buyer, Omnicom Group’s Hearts & Science, to get everything in order. With more consumers taking a more active role in seeking out content, AT&T is essentially pitching itself as an assistant in that process. The company already serves up hours of entertainment and information through its DirecTV operations, and it also helps power smartphones and other digital connections.

Call it a nod to the company’s marketing past, when it used to help “American Idol” fans vote for their favorite by text message – lending heft to a means of communication that was, at the time, relatively nascent.

AT&T is likely to try to seek out similar opportunities, says Jeff Fischer, executive director of entertainment and content marketing for Hearts & Science. “The vehicle for that is using a character’s phone to unlock all sorts of additive experiences,” says Fischer, “We think that is a platform that could be pervasive.”

And while TV helps drive the whole thing, “the real experience is off of linear,” he says.

AT&T has other reasons to portray itself as a tool to find entertainment. The company is trying to prevail in a bid to acquire Time Warner for $85.4 billion. Should it win, AT&T would become a part owner of the CW. In addition to helping “Riverdale” fans get “more for your thing,” AT&T’s commercial plan could help it get more for its own down the road.

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