TV companion apps

In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Marcus Casey looks at the growing trend of TV companion apps and asks who is benefitting from the technology.

Television companion apps have been hailed as the next big thing in the TV experience for some time now, and while there has been an impressive number of downloads – more than 2.5 million – of the existing ones in Australia, they haven’t quite pierced the wider public consciousness.

And it’s not really known just how many of those downloaders use these apps regularly as the operators – all of the commercial free-to-air networks excluding SBS – won’t reveal figures, even though the apps collect scores of data.

But there is a movement out there, and it’s growing. Encore has spoken to the operators and they insist the so-called ‘second screen’ experience on tablets and smartphones is already a success.

And advertisers and media buyers agree. Not only do they give users a much deeper insight into their favourite programs – and allow real-time conversations between these viewers – they also give advertisers a deeper penetration into much more targeted consumer markets.

Seven has Fango (in partnership with Yahoo!7), last year Ten launched Zeebox, Nine has just relaunched Jump In to coincide with the premiere of The Block: All Stars, and the ABC is developing ABC Companion which it plans to launch soon.

The apps all have full free-to-air TV guides, but feature individual network programs where one tap takes viewers to the home of their favourite show with episode information, cast interviews, games and more.

Fango chief Kristin Carlos says the app has already played a huge role this year in the viewing experience of My Kitchen Rules, and cites last year’s X Factor as an example of the reach of these apps. “Yahoo!7’s Fango has now been downloaded by 700,000 Australians and is approaching 2.5million individual program check-ins,” she says.

And it provides a unique way for passionate fans to connect in a socially interactive environment. Carlos says: “In last year’s season of X Factor we ran a Fango poll asking the audience which judge they’d like to see dance Gangnam Style with Psy. The poll saw a resounding response for Mel B. We had hundreds of thousands of Fango viewers voting. As a result, Mel B danced live on stage with Psy which received international publicity.”

At the start of February, Nine relaunched Jump In (it kicked off during the Olympics but then went into something of a developmental hibernation).

Mi9 – the partnership between Microsoft and Nine – developed the app and Jump In boss Rebecca Haagsma says the network is featuring many ‘call outs’ to the downloaders to invite them to go deeper into the show and participate. And advertisers follow them.

The app’s integration with The Block is a great example of what it can do, offering a 360-degree tour of the rooms designed by contestants, interviews and features revealing what past contestants think of the All Stars. Viewers can also vote for their favourite rooms in the app and get behind-the-scenes gossip. Jump In promos also air on other programs to draw fans back to the show, which premiered this month.

New shows are being introduced to Nine’s Jump In each week. The 60 Minutes section will feature presenters talking about various stories and additional content not seen on air. Like all of the companion apps, it continues to evolve.

“The product will change and grow and develop as we build new features,” Haagsma says. “What you see today is not what you’ll see in six months’ time. User experience and getting it right means we’ll need some great (app) journey architects. The program producers are all working on ideas for their programs. It’s all very new, and everyone is thinking hard to come up with ideas and do some really interesting work.”

A point of difference for Seven’s Fango is that viewers earn points when using it, and when they reach a certain amount they are rewarded with prizes such as DVDs.

The ABC Companion also applies gamification elements launching with a single program – the forthcoming Merrick Watts quiz show Tractor Monkeys based on the ABC’s archived footage – giving viewers a chance to play along with the show.

“It will have features built into it to interact with the companion app and for people to react to,” says Arul Baskaran, who is overseeing the project. “It’s a very new area and there is a lot of excitement in the industry about it, but in terms of audience reaction, companion apps have not yet carved out a big place in audience viewing habits.

“But it will grow. Broadcasters can learn a lot more about what people are watching and get more oversight than the ratings system, and much better information gathering. Then we will be able to develop new content more tailored to audience desires.”

Craig Blair of Zeebox – Ten’s app – says Australians have downloaded the companion apps at a higher rate than US and UK audiences. But he says churn is higher here, although this has not stopped advertisers from embracing the technology.

Fango’s Carlos says the recent Australian Open was a good example of how the apps can benefit advertisers. She says: “We worked with Kia Motors to deliver an integrated advertising campaign by designing a ‘Fango Kia Big Shot’ tennis game. The game encouraged fans to compete for their chance to win one of three new Kia cars. It was very popular – the average time spent playing the game was more than two hours per user.”

ANZ also sponsored an ‘open mic’ segment where users could submit questions for commentator Jim Courier to ask players in post-match interviews.

Leigh Terry of Omnicom Media Group, whose stable of media agencies includes OMD and PHD, has done extensive research on the apps and says they’re an extremely effective advertising tool.

“There’s a lot of interest from advertisers and that can only grow, especially with the growth of smart phones and tablets in addition to iPads. It will just become the norm,” he says.

And its not just the networks that are creating companion apps. Other players are entering the space including the music-based app Shazam.

The app, best known for helping users identify songs, is making moves into the TV space starting with advertising. The Shazam icon has started appearing during TV ads, taking viewers behind the scenes to the making of commercials and offering an extension of campaigns. It’s currently being used by Weight Watchers, enabling the viewer to find out about the brand’s spokesperson Mahalia Barnes and her weight-loss journey.

But there is plenty of growth potential for Shazam in regular programming, raising the question of whether an agnostic companion app could enter the market and take over from the networks’ dedicated channel-specific offerings.

When posed the question by Encore, Mi9 CEO Mark Britt said: “I don’t know is the short answer. It actually doesn’t matter, though. What will absolutely happen is every great TV show will have a great companion experience from Channel Nine and Ninemsn.

”Ultimately the platform is a secondary question. There’s some really interesting international technology that all the competitors in Australia are integrating into different parts of their product.”

Britt and Omnicom’s Terry both agree this will be an interesting space to watch, with numerous opportunities available for integration, and not only at the network level.

“People have become used to seeing the Shazam logo on the soundtrack of an ad,” says Terry.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they end up doing something with the free-to-air networks. It will be interesting – do they go to the network, or if it’s The Voice, do they go to Shine? The answer is they go to everybody, because there is value in it for everybody, especially the advertisers.”


This feature first appeared in the tablet edition of Encore. To download click on the links below.



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