Now’s the time to pay as much attention to the second screen as audiences do

Ross HowardBroadcasters are grappling with a declining ad spend and downward ratings globally. Ross Howard argues TV networks should both play to their strengths and double-down on their initial second-screen efforts to generate more value from a shrinking and more distracted audience.

There’s a sad irony that in this golden age of TV content broadcasters are now struggling with declines in revenue.

Grappling with an increasingly fragmented competitor set, and having to constantly reinvest to match global technology firms inventing new delivery mechanisms, sees established players having to wage battles on an intimidating range of fronts.

Whilst on-demand content and mobile devices have reshaped how we consume entertainment – and consequently how it’s monetised – there’s still one area in which broadcast can’t currently be beaten.

That is, by-appointment televisual events, typically coming in the form of live sports, reality shows and political or panel debates. In these contexts, where the entire point is sharing in the experience live as it happens, or just as everyone else is watching it, the established broadcast model still feels state-of-the-art.

But if this was a comprehensive solution, we’d be seeing much better returns off what can only be viewed as programming continually tuned to this effect. Today, when Australians are sitting down to watch the latest episode of The Voice or the footy, most of them are spending half their time juggling devices.

So even with these compelling formats, eyeballs and attention are still leaking away from the broadcast screen onto the secondary ones. This is likely a significant factor in the decline of broadcaster revenue, and it’s not even clear this distraction is being accurately monitored.

Whilst broadcast has always been amazing at reaching people in front of the box, it’s typically been less successful in driving deep, meaningful engagement with those watching.

If this sounds like hyperbole, consider what makes digital ad spend continue to grow to the detriment of TV – digital channels’ ability to target, connect and directly engage with consumers who’ve demonstrated some degree of propensity or interest.

Couple this with the depressingly low number of people actually using their mobile devices for anything actually related to the TV and you start to get a sense of the challenges now facing TV networks.

Today broadcasters can no longer afford to just consider the TV screen in isolation, but instead need to configure living rooms as multi-screen environments to maximise commercial return.

Of course broadcasters have known this for a while, and previously tried to deliver apps aimed at engaging viewers during broadcast.

These apps struggled to provide compelling value as a companion experience, and ultimately evolved towards video and catchup offerings, leaving viewers to their own devices of distraction during broadcast.

Given the market forces at play, now more than ever is the time for broadcasters to double down on their second screen efforts, taking all that they learnt from previous experiences, and looking to go well beyond relatively small proportion of second screeners engaging socially in the shows they are watching.

The opportunity lies in between the wall-garden approaches of the past, and the small and difficult to monetise social hashtag soup.

Broadcasters can become a powerful conductor of activity rather than just a conduit for content. They can grow value for themselves and their advertisers by:

  1. Continuously innovating the most effective methods for turning viewers into an audience of active second-screen participants during broadcasts, working across episodes, shows and seasons.
  2. Constantly optimising formats and methods for keeping the audience attentive and interacting at the right times.
  3. Ultimately creating the best opportunities for brand engagement and direct response to advertising that these digital devices afford.

This innovation is already underway, and it’s informed by the walled garden experiences of old, plus the successes of new efforts around participatory TV. Here’s the download on what appears to be working well:

  1. Like all good user-centered design, beginning with a basic human behaviour – what makes being part of an audience a compelling experience – live group participation, seeing how others feel, a degree of anonymity whilst still being part of the feedback, a degree of competition or self assessment. A good example is TEN’s Shark Tank, which enabled the audience to react as Home Sharks live to each and every pitch.
  2. Removing barriers to entry – enable instant participation without needing to register, download or install an app. Better still, let users participate from wherever they are, by providing rich experiences within Facebook and Twitter. ITV allowed viewers to react the the UK Leaders Debate via ITV.com, Twitter and Facebook.
  3. Audiences love being in the TV spotlight – so give them a presence, the more the better so think about how you can give the whole audience a voice, not just selected tweets.
  4. Accepting audience churn – enable late-comers to engage – beware of exclusively play-along experiences that don’t support new viewers.
  5. Don’t tax participation – SMS voting is consistently declining globally, and this type of audience engagement is much more valuable to sponsors. As winning becomes less significant in reality formats, winner selection or voting is becoming less important than critiquing the effort and drama playing out onscreen.
  6. Giving advertisers access to the same multi-screen functionality will frequently drive innovation for everyone’s benefit.

The good news is that viewers are already heavy users of second screens, the question now is how quickly can broadcasters reach out to them with compelling experiences of their own, bridging gap for themselves and their advertisers.

Ross Howard is SVP of Product and Design at Buzzdial, a platform for broadcasters which lets audiences share their reactions to TV shows and live events via second screen devices and across social media.


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