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Video Case Study: Inside the CIA – Epicurious.com

March 29, 2007

This item was originally distributed on February 15, 2007.

Epicurious.com has started a new web-isode series that sounds really interesting. At least for a food junkie and wanna be chef like myself. Inside the CIA is about 4 aspiring chefs, and the trials and travails of getting through the Culinary Institute of America – the University of Chicago, if you will, of all things culinary. The site can be found here:

http://www.epicurious.com/features/cia/

Production value is decent. Editing is not bad, for web based stuff. Characters are engaging. Recipe for success?

Not so fast, in my opinion. I stumbled upon this little project because I went to the Epicurious website at 6pm on a Thursday night, needing to get dinner ready. I am looking for a recipe, and have no time to waste. Every one of my visits is similar, and I don’t think I ever spend that much time on the Epicurious website. I suspect most of us don’t. We go there to get a recipe, and leave once we have what we are looking for. And therein lies the first problem. This is good content, being killed by bad context.

As many of you know, I like to think about next-gen content in three ways: content, community and context. The notion being that for content to be successful, it needs to be the right content (in terms of form and subject matter), consumable in the right context (in terms of sites and screens) and needs to take advantage of community (facilitating the right interaction with audience members) where appropriate. Lets take a look at how this property measures up along each dimension.

Content
On the whole, the tone of content, in my opinion is dead on for the web: short form, highly edited and high tempo all the way through. The characters are engaging and attractive. They each have a blog, where they talk about their trails and tribulations, and you can view their ongoing class schedule as well. There is also access to their audition tapes. All in all, there is some good content here, that can hold audience attention for quite some time. Not much effort is made to make it “look polished” and nor should it be. It would be lost on the 3″x4″ screen anyway.

There are no ads within the video streams, but there are several banner ads on each page, so the content is clearly being monetized. Given the production value, of the video etc. however, I am sure Epicurious isn’t making a profit on the series. At this stage, that may not be the point.

Context
So why is Epicurious developing this project to begin with? As I said earlier, I suspect most visitors are not there with a desire to simply browse around and consume content. One of the best reasons to get involved in non-traditional content for a publisher or advertiser is to use it to drive change in a perception or behavior. Epicurious may be making this content available becuase

1) they want to change consumers’ behavior when they come to the website beyond just finding a recipe;
2) because they are trying to evolve the Epicurious brand, into something that is more holistic than a source for recipes; and
3) because as a publisher, they have realized that they must leverage their brand across multiple screens and touch points to compete with the likes of TV Food Network and others.

The first issue is about shifting consumer behavior. The second is about shifting consumer perception. The third is about shifting strategic imperative. All are linked to one another, and all are good reasons to explore whether next-gen content makes sense.

The problem is, while the Epicuroius website is a well formated recipe website, it is not a very well formated video environment. There are too many things on the page, first and foremost: rich ads to the right of the video screen are distracting, banner ads are everywhere on the page, and there are many links to things not involving the content at all. All of this makes for a cluttered video watching environment that distracts from the main content. Indeed, because the video screen itself is not much larger than the ads around it, it is often hard to determine where to focus your attention. The second issue is the fact that you have to scroll down to get to the video player itself. There are few ways in which online video should resemble TV, but here are a few:

1) clicking on a link to directly watch a video is like changing the channel. Once you do, you shouldn’t have to do anything to start watching: there should be no need to scroll up or down, and there should be no need to press a button to start playing.
2) Just like on a TV screen, there should be as little as possible on a page to draw your attention away from the content at hand. (Often, even TV gets this wrong. How many times have network “bugs” distracted you from the programming?)

Community
The biggest issue here is that there is none.

There is little to no way to interact with the programming, or with each other about the programming. I can imagine that this is the type of content people would love to talk about. And these characters are characters people would love to interact with. But there are no message boards about the content. While there is an RSS feed for the blogs, there are no RSS feeds for the videos. There is no way for me to customize my experience. If I am a food junkie, and really associated with the show, for example, I should be able to download a screen saver, or an avatar at the very least.

By and large, this is last-gen content: you sit and watch. You can get away with this type of content on a platform where interaction is minimized (like a TV screen or even a mobile screen) but on a screen like a computer, that is MEANT for interaction, if you don’t facilitate interaction, the immediate perception is that there is something missing.

So what would I do differently?

First and foremost, I would revamp the website and make it more video friendly. I would eliminate any other rich ad on the page, and would replace it with a 15 second pod half way through the program, and perhaps a post reel. If the content really takes off down the line, perhaps I would add a 15 second pod at the beginning. I would make the video player larger, and would push it up on the page so you don’t have to scroll. I would also make the video pages stream, so you don’t have to press the play button. The website uses very little of the overall screen real estate, so I would also provide a bit more “white space” around the player and the surrounding links and text. Websites often get so caught up in the over all look and feel of a site, it starts to become a handcuff. Subtly changing the appearance of the site from section to section is alright if it helps the overall usability. If consistency is such a big deal, then give the content its own distinctive sub-site, and launch it in a different browser tab.

Second, I would broaden the options over which you could get the content. Changing consumer behavior involved more than just providing different types of content. It also involves attracting different types of consumers. If 80% of the traffic on Epicurious.com is from people who are looking for recipes, perhaps they should work harder to attract more people who like food related content. To do this, I would use the programming itself as advertising. Put the episodes on YouTube (without embedded ads) and similar sites, and allow people to download it for free on iTunes (with the ads) or players like Democracy. I would also provide the option for people to download the content to their hard drives from the website, so they can watch later, if they want. Remember: the goal here is to also change consumer perception of the epicurious brand. If you want people to think of you as more than just recipes, then make it easy for them to digest your the other products. Figure out the monetization once you’ve figured out the mode of consumption.

Finally, I would enable community much more. Message boards, etc. are just the start. I would have a scheduled time when each episode is released, and perhaps even have some of the characters available via chat during the first hour or so. This not only creates additional reason for people to come to the website, it also creates an environment for further interaction among viewers, making the site and the property more sticky, and further facilitating the exact changes in perception and behavior we are looking for. I would also have contests where they could highlight certain recipes and would encourage users to submit videos of themselves creating the recipes, or customizing the recipes.

Beyond that, if this takes off, the sky is the limit. I would look into other series and maybe look into distribution over cable on demand networks. I would look into more content around this series as well, that is not available anywhere else: behind the scene footage, interviews with the characters and instructors, etc. From a monetization standpoint, I would look for an overall sponsor who would get integrated into the story over time. Calphalon, for example, might pay to have all the pots and pans and knives be their own products. Once you have a community of avid fans who are hungry for more and more niche content like this, there is no end to the things you can feed them.

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