Hulu Raises the Bar on Social and Television

I have been having a lot of fun playing around with hulu.com for the past few weeks. It’s a joint venture between NBC and News Corp. It’s in private beta right now, so you have to make a request to gain access. Here is how Hulu describes what they are in an October 29, 2007 press release.

Hulu is an online video service, offering viewers a vast selection of streaming, on-demand, premium programming on a free, ad-supported basis. Hulu content includes full-length current and archived television programming as well as clips and an initial selection of feature films.

When you first log-in the marquee promotes feature properties in a slide show. Below that, content is displayed in identical rectangular bricks down the page. The thumbnail images are chosen carefully and easily recognizable by the visitor. No need to give one or the other more weight. Since the advertising is embedded within the videos on the player page, there are no annoying banners or takeovers to avoid. This makes it inviting and you immediately feel like exploring. Looks like my finely honed “banner blindness” skills will be going to waste here.

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Only three navigation choices plus a search box are offered across the top. All landing pages from these links are intuitive. You can also dive right into the clips from the boxes or links found on any of the pages. Users will be familiar with the content, so there is little risk in starting the video. How many times have you wished you hadn’t seen some of those You Tube videos? The search box is smart and the results page contains a left hand navigation with a rich array of filtering choices.

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When you find something to watch, simply click and sit back. Once on the player page, a short commercial from the sponsor runs. The progress bar below the screen has small white dots, signaling when the commercials will appear. You can scroll back and forth within the clip, but not through the promotional spots. Kind of opposite of Tivo. Once a spot appears, a countdown lets you know when you can expect your show to restart. The spots are short, 10 seconds or so.

Yes this is another entry into the already crowded and confusing social network world, but unlike so many other sites, these guys are getting a lot of things right.

First, being a major media production and distribution company with popular entertainment brands, they instantly have permission to play in this space. The selection is huge and spans across dozens of content providers, not just NBC and FOX. You Tube is fun and entertaining, but the production value, or lack of ,wears me down quickly. You Tube also has a huge limitation. It will not play outside the web. Television and film can be anywhere here’s a screen and the emotion pretty much remains the same.

Second, the visual grammar of the site is crisp and clean. It feels more like a publishing landscape than a web site. Certainly not a blog. A pristine white background makes the logos, images and actors pop off the page. The copy is slightly gray but readable and easy on the eyes. The focus is on content. Everything works together as you navigate through the site.

Third, the usual social network features are available, but not in your face. One of the problems I have with many social sites, especially Facebook, is they have become very busy and confusing over the last few months. This coincides with “application mania” and dense and growing population. Facebook has introduced some new features to address this with their show more / show fewer profile boxes, but at some point they will need to redesign. That will be an ugly exercise. Hulu is absolutely full on social media, but doesn’t allow that to get in the way of the viewing experience. The user-generated content fits into Hulu’s templates, rather than allowing their site to be controlled by it.

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When mousing over the screen the controls emerge. You can share the clip with a friend, even select a specific section of the show by dragging the progress bar handles. This allows the user to further customize their message. You can rate the clip, see details on what you are watching (original air date, etc.) and get an embed code for your blog (I can’t embed any of the videos here, because WordPress strips out flash tags). A feedback form is provided for quality or any technical problems. You can watch it full screen or launch a pop-up, even lower the lights (the white background fades back to gray) to simulate a TV viewing room experience. Of course you can write a brief review for others to read; a must. There are links to Amazon to buy DVDs, not a surprise, as Hulu’s CEO Jason Kilar used to work at Aamzon. We’ve seen most of these features before, but not this elegantly and intuitively integrated in the user interface.

There is a Hulu blog and I found an interesting “time capsule” post that could only be pulled off by one of the long standing networks. On February 19, 2008, President’s Day, they included clips from three former Presidents, JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Fascinating viewing when you think about what we are going through this election year.

Social Influence Marketing (SIM) is buzzing right now as companies and marketers search for the business in social media. Hulu appears to be getting close. It’s not perfect (it’s Beta after all) and I am unsure of the brand play, as there is no equity in Hulu. But it’s the most excited I’ve been about Television in almost 15 years. And the best part, it’s not Television! Check it out.

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