There’s probably no bigger hot button issue right now in the web series world than view counts. After exposing MySpace’s paid auto-plays (which were being reported as regular views) on their BFF series, we received numerous comments and emails on the subject. Emotions ran high on this as creators with decent views cried foul to cheaters trying to pass off paid impressions as actual intent-driven views. We listened to you and we’re going to be taking a deeper look at the issue on Tubefilter News, including examples of those who are actually getting real viewers without cheating.

IKEA easy to assemble Panelists on the gabby digital media conference circuit love to spew phrases like  ‘go to where your audience is’, and even we have written on the benefits of finding your audience. There aren’t however many examples to point to of those who have actually done that effectively. The Guild still stands as one of the best at connecting with a thriving World of Warcraft fanbase, though even its success with that group wasn’t accidental. Creator Felicia Day is well known for her tireless commitment to outreach and connecting with new fans of the show.

When IKEA-backed Easy to Assemble launched its sophomore season a few weeks back, along with its closely-tied spin-off Sparhüsen, it came with a red carpet premiere well-attended by the show’s recognizable cast. But early fanfare can fade, and the proof of actual success is, as they say, in the pudding. In this case, that means how many people are actually watching the show.

A Little History

Easy to Assemble often gets lumped in with pure branded entertainment fare, with most people thinking it came straight off a whiteboard at IKEA’s ad agency. But the series is actually entirely independently owned by its creator-star, Illeana Douglas. Douglas in fact first rolled the concept of celebrities working retail with her Illeanarama: Supermarket of the Stars web series on YouTube back in late 2006. Douglas then pitched the scripted series in early 2008 to IKEA, who loved the idea of having Douglas and her offbeat friends—Justine Bateman, Tom Arnold, Ed Begley Jr., Jane Lynch, Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Pollak—working at the company’s Burbank store.

After some modest success of the first season, IKEA agreed to sponsor a second season, this time with an increased production budget and the addition of new cast members like Cheri Oteri, Tim Meadows and Ricki Lake. Then came news of a secret spin-off show about a fictional Swedish rock band named Sparhüsen, and the casting of film star Keanu Reeves. For the new season, Douglas teamed up with Wilson Cleveland at CJP Digital to help with marketing and distribution of the shows, whom she had met prepping for the OnFrontsNYC event in June.

Cleveland and the CJP team inked a distribution deal for both shows with online comedy network My Damn Channel, and embarked on an aggressive outreach campaign that would involve tapping into IKEA’s rabid and loyal fan base. Since launching on October 8, 2009, the two series have racked up over 1.9 million views, an impressive start for a scripted web series, with just four episodes of Easy to Assemble and two episodes of Sparhüsen released so far. We are taking a deeper look at how exactly they pulled this off.

The Raw Numbers

Note: In researching this story, we audited the view counts from across the different distribution channels for the series and were given access to non-public view counts by the producers. Given the various platforms, there are differing definitions of what constitutes a view, though all entail some direct intent to view (clicks) from a human viewer.

Series launch date: October 8, 2009  (Data measured through October 28, 2009)

  • Easy to Assemble episodes 1-4, collective views so far: 1,099,619
    • My Damn Channel’s onsite player: 545,131
    • My Damn Channel’s YouTube channel: 6,601
    • My Damn Channel’s Dailymotion: 1,019
    • Easy to Assemble’s YouTube: 29,153
    • Easy to Assemble’s Blip.tv player: 251
    • Easy to Assemble’s Facebook player: 702
    • Easy to Assemble’s Dailymotion: 364
    • Easy to Assemble’s Funny or Die: 55
    • easytoassembleseries.com: 4,846
    • IKEA fan site players:511,497 (see below for more on this)

  • Sparhüsen episodes 1-2, collective views so far: 330,934
    • My Damn Channel’s onsite player: 320,790
    • My Damn Channel’s YouTube channel: 10,144
    • My Damn Channel’s Dailymotion: 1,019
  • Total collective views of both shows (episodes only): 1,430,553

    Combined views for the shows’ trailers (launched the week of 9/15): 532,587

Total views of both shows including trailers: 1,963,140

Empowering The IKEA Faithful

IKEAFANSSusan Martin runs arguably the most popular IKEA fan site, appropriately named IKEAFANS.com. Her site boasts over 320,000 unique visitors a month, most of them hyper aware of the myriad of funny-named furniture and household products on IKEA’s shelves. The Sweden-based retailer is one of those gilded brands, like Apple and Southwest Airlines, that inspires customers to the point of almost cult-like adoration.

“IKEA has that most elusive combination of respect and love from their customer base,” said Martin over email. “IKEA is an experience. IKEAFANS personalizes that experience. And of course, there’s the meatballs!”

When Cleveland was looking for ways to grow the Easy to Assemble and Sparhüsen audience, he knew he needed to connect with this crowd. “Nothing from last season seemed to include IKEA’s huge existing fan base, said Cleveland. “I thought there’s got to be something to that. I really want to make the fans of the brand part of the distribution strategy.”

Just emailing these fans however and giving YouTube embed codes only goes so far. So Cleveland decided to make a little competition out of it, by approaching the top 4 IKEA fan sites and offering them a custom embeddable Ooyala player that only works on their sites. From the backend, he can track the performance of each of the sites in terms of how many people they get to watch each episode. The site that gets the most genuine views throughout the season will get written in to Episode 11, the season finale of Easy to Assemble where viewers find out who won the fan-voted ‘Co-Worker of the Year’ between Illeana and Justine.

The outreach benefits are a two-way street, helping add relevant and recurring content to the fan sites. “October has been our best month ever in terms of traffic and unique visitors, and I attribute some of that to the success of ETA and its spinoff Sparhusen,” said Martin. “The IKEA Fans community (120,000+ members in our forums) stretches far and wide, and it’s fun to see someone like Illeana Douglas embracing IKEA. I also think it’s terribly funny that she thinks she’s the biggest IKEA Fan!!”

Cleveland likes to throw around the phrase ‘pride of ownership’ when talking about empowering the brand’s fans. “If there’s a brand sponsoring a show and that brand clearly has an existing community of enthusiasts, you want to give each of them some pride of ownership in the show and making sure it succeeds,” Cleveland added.

“Being able to embed the player into our site’s architecture and knowing that the number of views from our players were to be counted for a competition made it a lot of fun,” Martin said when asked about the competition. “After revamping our site’s infrastructure last year, we’re also in a better position now to participate in promoting the show, to feature the series on the homepage and as an ongoing feature in our sidebars.”

“Smart companies know who their fans are,” said Cleveland. “Having an entertainment property associated with a brand not only gives its enthusiasts something to discuss and enjoy, but it can always engage those audiences who weren’t fans before.”

IKEA has given Douglas and her crew quite a bit of free reign both creatively and in terms of promotion of the shows. That’s helped them master step number one in web series success—having entertaining content. For the company, the show is a marketing vehicle, associating showing the brand’s cool but humorous side, gently poking fun at its Swedish corporate culture. For ROI on the sponsorship, IKEA is looking at how many real people watch and engage with the show, among other factors, rather than purchasing ad impressions. “It’s important to them that people watch, like and remember it,” added Cleveland.

The Next Wave

While the online fan sites and sizable reach of high-brow comedy curator My Damn Channel make up the core of the early phase of the Easy to Assemble and Sparhüsen release, the next step may in fact be where the bulk of new viewers come from. Starting in mid November, the series will be available on Roku set-top boxes and even WNBC’s NY Nonstop channel through Blip.tv’s wide distribution roll-out. And come early 2010, the show will be featured on Hulu, Verizon FiOS and The Hotel Networks’s in-room DoNotDisturb TV channel. Talks of a DVD release are also happening, says Cleveland, with it potentially ending up in full-season version on Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand.