Idol Hands

by Russell Brown / 04 December, 2004
Why the unofficial NZ Idol website thumped TVNZ's offering - and will probably continue to do so.

Several years ago, US TV networks began to ease up on the fan websites that had flourished around some of their programmes. Something had occurred to them: and that was that although an intellectual property lawyer could have found reasons to try to close down most of the sites - from their use of pictures and logos to their episode guides - it would not be in the best interests of the networks for that to happen.

However much the broadcasters might want to run the whole thing for themselves, the job of building communities around their brands and programmes was far better done by others. The same principle can be seen in action in the rise of IdolBlog, which was launched by Auckland couple Regan and Rachel Cunliffe at the same time as the first series of NZ Idol.

On the day of the Idol grand final, about 10,000 people visited to check on last-minute news, vote in its online polls, argue the toss in its forums or follow the real-time text commentary of the final broadcast. It was a degree of engagement that the official Idol website never achieved - and it didn't stop when the programme stopped.

Indeed, when IdolBlog was named best youth site at the NetGuide Web Awards recently, the fans were there in spirit. The Cunliffes were texting updates from the ceremony to a keen member who was putting them online for others to read.

IdolBlog continued to follow the fortunes of the first batch of Idol winners, along with the controversies. It was the key chronicler of what became known as the "So Damn Controversial" affair, which was sparked when IdolBlog regular Robyn Gallagher discovered that "So Damn Beautiful", the debut single for Idol runner-up Michael Murphy, was not, as his manager Paul Ellis had claimed, an original song. It had been recorded by the Texas-based band Vallejo, who even had a copy of it available for download on their website.

Gallagher did download it, quite legitimately, but Ellis foolishly accused her in a newspaper interview of "commit[ting] fraud every day by downloading songs" from the Internet. He eventually, and belatedly, apologised.

It was the kind of issue that an official site could never have aired, and IdolBlog handled it well. But its founders were no mugs in the first place. Regan has his own web design and hosting business, and Rachel lectures in statistics at the University of Auckland.

IdolBlog generates plenty of data. Regan can reel off the profile of IdolBlog's 7000 registered users: 76 percent are female, 73 percent are under the age of 29 (although some of the keenest users are among the 12.7 percent over the age of 40) and 61 percent are under 25. The raw numbers might not be as high as TV audiences, or as big as those for XtraMSN or the New Zealand Herald Online, but this is an engaged and loyal audience, and one prepared to offer information about itself.

In particular, a whole trove of data has been reaped from the online polls that are a key feature of the site. Some of it is, or should be of great interest to marketers - and the Cunliffes certainly have commercial aspirations. But Rachel acknow-ledges that it will be important to keep faith with the IdolBlog audience: "One of the key things we've learnt is that the more information you give people the more loyal they are to you," she says. "And as long as you're giving them an amazing site that has every piece of information they could possibly want on it, they're not going to mind if there are some ads on the site."

Actually, getting the advertising industry to recognise what they are doing has been a hard road so far.

"Don't get me started," says Regan. "I just think the ad industry is so behind on what's really going on. We were banging our heads against the wall the whole time during Idol. Every week we were sending out emails and faxes to all the agencies, saying, look, these are the figures we're getting, we've got this huge site, we're getting all this publicity - what is wrong with you people?

"It's a demographic that all the agencies want to advertise to, but they just sat on their hands. I think that was because we weren't the official site, and also because they thought, 'Who are these guys? How do we trust that their stats are right?' It was really frustrating - especially when it came to the point where it was costing us money because the traffic was so high."

Still, IdolBlog expands. With the help of an Australian correspondent, the site has been covering the progress of Australian Idol. It will be bigger and better for the next series of NZ Idol. And it has branched out into another wing of youth TV - and another South Pacific Pictures production - with Street Talk, a Shortland Street fan site with all the characteristic features of IdolBlog.

"One of the things with IdolBlog was people felt as though they were a part of the show, a part of something bigger than just Sunday night on TV," says Regan. "Street Talk also gives people the chance to come together, discuss characters, storylines, all that kind of thing. It just provides so much more than what official sites generally do.

"Especially with TVNZ, they don't like providing a lot of information. They provide just enough, but your average person wants a lot more. And the whole thing with the Internet is that people want information, and they don't want it in a week's time, they want it now."

Another side project, Breaking News Blogs, indicates that the Cunliffes have a better perspective on online advertising than most industry professionals. It's a collection of weblogs based on topics ranging from MP3 players to mineral supplements. The topics are aimed to chime with different streams of advertising from Google's AdSense service, which delivers small text ads to participating websites based on Google's analysis of the sites' content, and pays out according to the number of times the ads are viewed and clicked on.

If you get your site right, you can make good money out of Google ads. Regan and an Australian friend ran an Olympic blog during the Olympic Games - they attracted four million visitors and made $US12,000 from Google.

The new blogs are, Regan cautions, just an experiment. Pretty much everything that they are doing is an experiment at the moment, but with some interesting spin-offs. The University of Auckland has noted what Rachel has discovered about the way that communities form online, and has applied some of the knowledge in the form of new online forums to help individual students feel less "like a faceless, nameless person in a crowd", says Rachel.

The Cunliffes would like to draw a reliable salary from their work. There are proposals under consideration, the Idol franchise is definitely back on TV next year, and they will have a running start when the new series launches. But what the Cunliffes are doing isn't just about a TV talent show. It's a demonstration of how to relate to people online that the professionals would do well to study.


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