Oprah's Skypefest draws backlash
Queen O has embraced Skype and Twitter, but technical glitches and other snags highlight why new media isn't yet ready for prime time.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Oprah Winfrey's tastemaking power is legendary. A spot on her book club list is the Holy Grail for authors, who are all but guaranteed a bestseller. Under her tutelage, the likes of Dr. Phil, Tyra Banks and Rachael Ray have shot to stardom. A few comments on her show can make or break a product.
If Queen O likes it, millions will buy it. Her latest obsession: Social-media platforms.
Thursday's episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," called "Where the Skype Are You?," will feature adventure videos from different locations around the world.
Oprah's love affair with the Internet calling service began in March 2008 with a series of 10 online book-club webinars that Skype sponsored. Oprah soon entered into a broader "marketing agreement" with Skype and now features the service almost daily on her show. Viewers can call with questions or stories, and many guests "appear" via the video calling service.
"We are a sponsor of the show, but the partnership started and has evolved out of [Oprah's] interest," said Don Albert, a vice president at Skype, which is owned by eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500). The company won't comment on whether Oprah's promotion has directly boosted its bottom line, but "last-quarter results for Skype showed really robust growth," Albert said.
But beneath the on-air Skype lovefest lies a backlash against the new technology from some of Oprah's acolytes. Skype segments on the show have been consistently plagued with technical glitches, and some viewers are frustrated with the relentless promotion. Message-board posts on Oprah's Web site about the video addition are overwhelmingly negative - in sharp contrast to the site's usually laudatory threads.
Several months ago, user k1m606 posted: "I absolutely hate the addition of Skype viewers to every show. The audio is awful. The picture quality is lame. And so far, the contributions have been lame as well."
While some responses were positive or lukewarm, user kimkeiser summed it up for most: "While it is technologically innovative, the sound quality is not impressive, neither is the picture quality."
Such comments have continued throughout the year, with one January thread titled "Skype Sucks Big Time."
And it isn't only Oprah.com users. Type "Oprah Skype" into Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) and the first suggestion the search engine's AutoComplete feature offers is: oprah skype annoying. The second: oprah skype quality.
Those viewer comments reflect the difficulty of using Skype as a broadcast platform, said Andrew Davis, chief strategy officer for online marketing company TippingPoint Labs.
"There's a huge disconnect between quality standards," Davis said. "Particularly for a show like 'Oprah,' which prides itself on high production value, it's immediately clear that Internet video calling isn't going to measure up."
The introduction of technology to new demographics occurs in waves, Davis noted, and Oprah has certainly brought Skype to a new audience.
"But because they're unfamiliar, they may have expected HD-quality broadcast video and been sorely disappointed," he said. "On the other hand, this might be helping manage expectations - which would be a plus for the company. If nothing else, it's brand recognition to a new demographic, which is great exposure."
Oprah has also taken her new-media exploration to Twitter, the microblogging site that allows 140 characters per update. Oprah sent her first Twitter message last month: "HI TWITTERS . THANK YOU FOR A WARM WELCOME. FEELING REALLY 21st CENTURY."
But like many new Twitterers, Oprah dove in big and tapered off fast. Oprah tweeted 10 times on April 17, her first day as a user. That's almost a quarter of her 45 total updates so far. The tweets are few and far between, leaving followers to question whether she's bored with the account. Her last tweet came 5 days ago.
@oprah seems to fit the pattern spotlighted in Nielsen report last month. The online traffic-measurement firm found that more than 60% of Twitter users don't return the next month.
While some of Oprah's tweets have offered compelling insider gossip - in an April 20 post just before dawn, she wrote, "I pulled the Columbine show today-After reviewing, thought it focused too much on killers-hold a thought for the families, hard day for them" - most are mundane. "Thanks tweeps for your good thoughts..."
"Oprah's become part of the noise on the Twitter, and she's not adding any value to the overall content," Davis said.
Ironically, Oprah may be boosting Twitter's participation rates even if she herself chimes in only sporadically. "For most of the past 12 months, pre-Oprah, Twitter has languished below 30% retention," Nielsen said in its report. Oprah's arrival lifted that by 10%.
But even Queen O may not be enough to save Twitter.
"There simply aren't enough new users to make up for defecting ones after a certain point," Nielsen said. "Twitter has enjoyed a nice ride over the last few months, but it will not be able to sustain its meteoric rise without establishing a higher level of user loyalty. Frankly, if Oprah can't accomplish that, I'm not sure who can."