This month, in the CEO Spotlight, we welcome Niko Drakoulis, Founding Chairman and CEO, Akoo International, Elmwood Park, Illinois
- First of all, you have the word International in your corporate name. Have you expanded beyond the U.S.? Do you plan to? When and where?
We have aggressive international expansion plans in 2011-2012. This year, Akoo was awarded patents for its interactive media and marketing platform in major global markets, including the U.S., China, Russia, and Mexico. Patents will be awarded in additional regions of the world as well.
This platform powers our first U.S. network – Akoo Social Television – and currently enables 285 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. to make on-demand content requests and to interact with our social television service using their mobile phones and mobile devices. Of course, there’s an addressable global market of several billion mobile device users. Markets such as China, Europe, and the Middle East present enormous opportunities for our company to license its technology or strategically partner with market leaders to enable true interactivity between mobile devices and place-based video networks. Many of these conversations already are occurring. Keep in mind, however, that we expanded beyond the U.S. five years ago when we established Akoo’s E.U. office. There, we now employ 16 software development professionals.
- What have been Akoo’s biggest accomplishments in the U.S?
Our primary focus in 2009 and 2010 was deploying the first media network powered by our interactive technology – Akoo Social Television. Today, Akoo Social Television reaches 90 million U.S. consumers each month in more than 181 of the largest shopping malls and universities across 62 top markets.
This successful deployment of our network was only possible because our team executed on multiple fronts over the past several years: we developed and patented the interactive technology that I’ve already described; executed licensing agreements to secure premium video content, including from all four major record labels (Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and EMI); established strategic distribution partnerships with leading mall developers, including Simon Property Group, Macerich, and CBL Associates; deployed a state-of-the-art audiovisual network across the country; launched innovative marketing campaigns for top advertisers, which third-party research certified were more effective than TV across critical brand metrics; and attracted world-class executive talent with the hiring of Billy Campbell, former Discovery Networks president.
We’ve been at this for many years, but there’s an amazing amount of momentum, and it feels like we’re just getting started.
- Why did you choose to introduce Akoo in shopping malls and universities?
We have strict distribution criteria for our networks. We asked, “Where can you find the highest-value audiences, already in purchase mode, who can sit in front of our immersive experience for an extended period of time, and who have the ability to immediately walk or drive to a retail transaction opportunity after discovering an opportunity on Akoo?” One of the only places to find this audience is in the central dining areas of shopping malls. Research has validated our strategy. The average time spent viewing Akoo programming and advertising is 16 minutes per visit. It’s nearly impossible to get that type of engagement driving or walking by a billboard, in an elevator, or even online.
As for universities, we’re engaging an extremely concentrated, media-elusive 18-21 year-old demographic. In this vertical market, students will be engaged with the Akoo experience potentially over the course of their academic careers. We have an opportunity to really connect with this audience, creating life-long ‘brand alumni’ for our partners.
- I notice you mention both ‘64.5 million engaged viewers’ and ‘reaching 90 million consumers’. Can you update us on audience figures?
During its most recent audience measurement research across our initial 150 malls, Arbitron certified that Akoo reaches 89.6 million consumers each month in its environments, or ‘vehicle zones’. These consumers visit Akoo environments for an average 33 minutes.
The more important figure, we believe, is the number of our ‘engaged viewers’, which are defined as those consumers who actively watch Akoo programming and advertising during their visits. Arbitron determined that number is 72% of our gross audience, or 64.5 million engaged viewers per month. We also know from the research that some 13.5 million of these viewers watch Akoo programming for 30 minutes or more per visit. That’s an incredible amount of engagement.
In the university vertical market, we’re currently conducting audience measurement research, which will determine our gross audience and engaged viewers. In the meantime, we know that our programming reaches up to 400,000 unique enrolled students each day. The university vertical market in the U.S. is a major focus of expansion in 2011.
- Are your screens always in pairs?
Yes. Akoo programming in each location is delivered via a dual HDTV configuration and a professional audio system that monitors ambient noise and automatically optimizes volume levels. The number of TVs and speakers installed throughout each location is determined by a comprehensive pre-installation site survey.
Our goal is achieving full coverage of the seating area. Within each dual HDTV configuration, the Left screen features on-demand video avails, brand sponsored segments, and video advertising, while the Right screen features our scheduled programming, on-demand playback of viewer-selected content, and audio/video advertising, including TV spots and overlays.
- Why did you get involved in the music business? Are you a frustrated rock star?
Growing up, my grandfather was my mentor. I worked with him at several media companies that he owned – broadcast television, radio, print and cinema – and he helped me develop my business and entrepreneurial skills. My passion for media and technology also resulted from these early experiences. I eventually started and sold a mobile business and a technology-related company before founding Akoo. Today, I get to work at the intersection of media, technology, advertising and music.
- What kind of advertisers do you have on your networks? Are they the same on the campus and mall networks or are they sold differently?
To date, Akoo has successfully launched marketing and advertising campaigns for some of the world’s leading consumer brands, including Microsoft Xbox 360, Verizon FiOS, U.S. Cellular, McDonald’s, Best Buy, 20th Century Fox, Clear Wireless, and Live Nation, among others. Many of these have been national campaigns that run in both our mall and university vertical markets, although we’ve become much more flexible in response to our advertisers’ needs.
Third-party Advertising Effectiveness studies certified that 30-second TV commercials integrated within Akoo’s programming environment outperformed broadcast TV equivalents across key brand metrics such as ad recall, consideration, and purchase intent. The research also shows that Akoo reaches a large audience which is underserved by traditional media. This is very exciting.
- What are your plans to keep your product fresh and new in the future?
Akoo International is a media and technology innovator. We continue to execute a comprehensive patent portfolio strategy. This includes developing and launching additional interactive media applications in the home, as well as across multiple platforms such as social media, gaming consoles, and even connected TV/IPTV services.
In the meantime, for Akoo Social Music Television, we’re launching new branded entertainment products for our advertisers; expanding programming for shoppers; enhancing our existing mobile application; and introducing a new downloadable app with value-add location-based features.
In terms of advertising inventory, I’m very excited by our new SyncAd technology. SyncAds are simultaneously broadcast on our Left screens while (audio/video) TV ads are broadcast on our Right screen. This is akin to a full takeover of our national network and an extremely powerful way to communicate a message to audiences in our environments.
- How do you market yourself to consumers so that they know your offering when they are in the mall or university?
As mentioned, our distribution criteria in the malls and universities includes seating areas where large audiences already gather for extended periods of time. We then deliver immersive, audiovisual programming in those environments, which is at the forefront of the consumer experience. With multiple pairs of big-screen TVs and high-grade speakers throughout the environment, it’s very difficult not to notice Akoo! Of course, we also enable viewers to participate in the programming experience to strengthen engagement and consumer involvement. We feature video tutorials on our Left screens that teach people how to interact with the network. Table-top print media is also available, which features programming and on-demand video codes.
Usually, however, a lot of it is word of mouth. You’ll see groups of friends or families enjoying the programming, watching their favorite videos, interacting with the network, and even passing around their mobile phones when they receive their first confirmation message following an on-demand video request. That’s why we call it true ‘social television’, and that’s why our engagement and advertising effectiveness is so high.
- Give us three things impacting the digital world and digital out-of-home within the next three years.
Over the next 12-36 months, we’ll see an acceleration of advertising, marketing, and even sponsorship dollars coming into our space. This means measuring marketing effectiveness will become more important than ever, particularly if the industry expects digital out-of-home integrated into the media mix for the long-term.
Expect digital-placed based networks to be held to a higher standard by agencies and advertisers, in this regard.
Second, mobile devices and mobile platforms are transforming everything, including and how consumers connect with each other and with brand advertisers. We’re only in the early innings of this transformation, as some leading analysts have indicated. Nonetheless, we’ve believed in mobile since our founding. Akoo developed its technology (and subsequent social television network) for full mobile interactivity. Place-based networks will need an innovative mobile strategy to compete in the emerging media landscape.
Finally, let’s remember that it’s not about digital technologies at the end of the day. It’s about a fun, compelling, and relevant consumer experience. Marketing effectiveness is not possible without true engagement. That won’t change anytime soon.