Online Marketing & The Future of Television

It has been said that one can tell what a person values most by examining how they utilize their spare time.  If this is true then we (Americans in particular) place quite a bit of worth on our television shows.  You’ve probably seen statistics like these before but last year Nielsen estimated that Americans spend 34 hours a week watching television... that’s almost a full-time job!  And that doesn’t even include the 1 billion hours of video streaming that goes down every month on Netflix, with still more hours clocked on other platforms.  If content is king then television would appear to be the king of kings.

But for all of this video watching there has been a recent emergence of those who believe TV is dying and that your big-screen’s days are numbered.  As a vigilant marketer with your wetted finger to the wind it’s easy to get swept away with popular predictions that, at first glance, seem to resonate with reality.  But regardless, if the current “King of Content” is evolving and rapidly moving into the online space, it’s imperative that we find our place and purpose in this new landscape.

An Evolution Not a Revolution

The “death” of television programming has been greatly exaggerated.  It feels good to say it though, doesn’t it?  Much like “SEO is dead!”, we naturally get a slight rush by pronouncing something historically powerful to be a thing of the past.  Doing so, in our minds at least, puts us firmly on the right side of the trend before that icky, passé feeling of obsolescence creeps in.  But while giving in to this brand of vanity might be pleasurable in the moment, it can actually prevent us from capitalizing on any real opportunities that emerge during the transitional period between now and what is to come.  So sure are we of the present revolution that we miss our chance at carving out our place during the actual, more actionable evolution.   If “X is dead” already then you’ve missed your chance entirely.

While video distribution methods may change dramatically in the near future, the passive living-room television watching experience isn't going anywhere.  If the reports above are any indication, it appears that the number of eyeballs across all screens will continue to climb rapidly.

Many of us have long dreamt of a world where every television show, movie and sporting event was available through a streaming platform like Netflix for $6.99 per month.  A disturbing number of journalists seem to believe that it is possible to create a show like Game of Thrones or Mad Men along with running the NFL and filming all movies around the globe in a system where each person only pays 7 dollars per month for unlimited access via streaming.  Unfortunately this is not a future that is possible – the business model just doesn't add up.  Seven-dollars-for-everything would truly be a revolution but this isn't like the newspaper or music industry where an identical product of identical quality can be made in a basement on the cheap. Between the actors, sets, production and CGI, superlative television often costs superlative amounts of money.  Just ask Netflix as they try to make their way into the original programming business.

What's happening now is that networks and content creators like HBO, Bravo and ESPN are creating their own applications for distribution of content which is helping to drive other networks and cable providers like  ComcastDISH and Direct TV to do the same.  Perhaps not at the pace the young, tech-savvy internet professionals reading this now would prefer but at exactly the rate the greater market is demanding it. 

While I would love to fill page after page digging into the details of the future of TV (and will in the comments below, if provoked!) I want to get on to how this will affect our industry in broader strokes.  Here are some facets of the ongoing television evolution that I think online marketers should start paying more attention to:

A Screen is a Screen is a Screen

I find it confusing at best and disingenuous or sensational at worst when online journalists point to statistics on the decline of total cable subscribers followed by stats showing massive upticks in Netflix users and then somehow come to the conclusion that “Television is dead”. 

Whether you’re watching Breaking Bad behind the glow of liquid crystal, light emitting diodes, electrolyzed plasma or a cathode tube is it not still essentially the same, wildly successful medium?  Does the effectiveness of the content itself or the ads supporting it diminish due to the size or location of the screen it’s being watched on?

Of course there are minor differences between how and when we use these technologies that prudent marketers should be aware of but, if anything, television content providers should feel empowered by the new “unchained” version of TV where we’re no longer limited by time or space.

As “mobile” devices become more diverse and more ubiquitous we want to make sure our brand’s voice and message are, if nothing else, consistent across all devices.  If you’re not already at the table for these types of conversations with your clients or in-house you need to make sure you’re there to provide your informed opinion when it comes to understanding how your voice will remain on key across all screens.  This can and probably should include television or video.

Note the differences between screens where it’s meaningful but don’t drown yourself in them.   True device neutrality is coming anyway.

Harnessing the Power of Infinite Segmentation

For marketers, one disadvantage of the classic television delivery system was that they possessed little to no information on their viewership other than the broadest of data sets (18-45 year olds watching in “primetime hours” etc.)

Advertisers have been doing the obvious stuff for years, pushing Maker’s Mark whiskey alongside Mad Men and sugary cereals with SpongeBob SquarePants.  But an increase in online viewership will provide vast troves of minable user information. 

In the future we’ll be able to parse this even more by correlating those more obvious connections above with data points such as location, device, online buying habits and… wait for it… users' viewing history.

Facebook has already started the ball rolling by allowing advertisers to target us based on our “Likes” and it seems to be working well for them, as well as for advertisers.  Television providers will be able to mimic Facebook's success with data as users take their watching rituals online.

Netflix already knows us better than we know ourselves without even trying.  If Netflix or another network was to actively mine for targetable population segments this would become a very powerful tool in the hands of online marketers.

Pioneering Interactive Ads & Content

If a screen is a screen is a screen and you’re able to deliver all types of content (advertising or otherwise) across all devices then I forsee a huge increase in interactive, deeper types of engagement for brands.  Have you ever been watching a commercial on your Comcast cable box and seen a message pop up asking if you’d like more information?

Regardless of the current effectiveness of the above example this is only the beginning of interactive brand content sandwiched between our favorite television shows.  As a user this more or less disgusts me in its current form.  If I end up missing a game-winning pass from Russell Wilson to Sydney Rice because of some new-fangled interactive advertisement for Cheetos there will be hell to pay.  But as a marketer I can see the potential for truly interesting interactions with a properly targeted audience if utilized in a clean, crisp and thoughtful way. Maybe my engagement with an ad allows me to skip the next six?  Imagine an addicting, sponsored, mini-game while you wait for your Netflix episode to load.  Or picture an interactive data visualization on breakfast eating habits (sponsored by General Mills) appearing on your iPad 6 alongside a CNN news report on the same topic. H&M are already on the ball with interactive ads ready to go for the Super Bowl that will work on some screens.  It's only a matter of time.

Check out this ad from Breville:

Did you catch that at the end there?  “Just search for Breville to find out more.”  Now some of us 90’s kids may be getting flasbacks to “AOL Keywords” but what if you could find out more or even BUY the product right from your television, immediately?  Many of us are already “dual-screen” television watchers so this ad may be particularly effective already but with true device neutrality and connectivity the possibilities for creating content that people actually like are limitless.

Expect this sort of interactive content in the future or better yet be one of the first pioneers to execute it properly and effectively.

TV Makes Community Building Easy

Social media and television were a match made in heaven.  If you took away all posts about TV shows and televised sports on Twitter and Facebook I suspect you’d be looking at a much quieter place.  Social media is the proverbial “water cooler” that we all used to gather around.  TV networks have already realized this and are taking advantage of the community building opportunities that help to exacerbate ratings and hype around a given television event.  2014 has been called “The year of social TV” while Business Insider opines on how social media will make television advertising more efficient and effective.  At the very least you've noticed programs calling for viewers to visit their fan pages or even utilizing social media to connect to users:

I recently wrote about the perils of using pop culture to sell things online but that’s not to say that companies can’t form meaningful partnerships and create wonderful content to tap into these water cooler moments.

These communities often come pre-segmented in that you’d probably target a Game of Thrones fan differently than you might target someone watching Sex and the City or a college basketball game.  If your brand can effectively tap into these fan bases and provide value that they’re genuinely excited about and willing to share then you’ve got something meaningful and powerful as an online marketer.

The Future of Digital Marketing Looks Bright

For all this talk of a bloody, death-filled revolution for television I see a lot of opportunity in this new landscape as a digital marketer.  As technology advances for the better and the television industry splinters into smaller, more agile entities there seem to be more and more marketing opportunities that are right in our wheelhouse.  We’ve been building communities online since the dawn of social media.  We’ve been creating compelling interactive content for several years now.  We’ve been segmenting data and compensating for various screen sizes for at least a decade.  The skills that you and I possess are valuable and they're about to become even more-so as television evolves.

We can debate the speed and volume at which television will evolve but it would be tough to argue against the fact that a large amount of what we could call traditional television marketing spend will be heading into a more connected, digital space requiring a very particular expertise-- ours.

I think we have a tendency to separate the two: online marketers on one side with big, creative television advertisers on the other.  But those lines are beginning to blur and the expertise of both will be needed in order to create an integrated, comprehensive marketing plan capable of winning hearts and minds in the future.  Stay tuned for further posts and, if you haven't already, check out our visual report on the Future of TV.


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