Proof: Back In Its Prime

With many different media delivery platforms, how do consumers choose? The past year brought a number of studies suggesting that more and more consumers are using the Internet to view video content. Many of these studies, however, report on general consumption, and while a global understanding of consumer behavior is certainly useful, most major advertisers need to understand consumer action as it relates to ad buys they are considering.

Media buying for most major brands isn't directly impacted by the knowledge that consumers watch short-form user-generated content. For this reason, Integrated Media Measurement Inc. (IMMI) undertook a study focusing on the computer-TV crossover of the most high-value ad inventory: primetime broadcast programming. The study suggests that although computer usage appears quite dominant, TV is still a very powerful medium when it comes to primetime programming. It shouldn't be written off just yet.

The study examined consumption habits for 10 primetime network programs among 3,000 IMMI panelists from May to October 2008. In the month of October, IMMI found that nearly all participants (97 percent) watched at least one of the episodes tracked on live or delayed television. Only 3 percent of the participants watched an episode online without ever watching any live or delayed television. Despite their increasing trial of online access to episodic content, consumers still watch television.

When all primetime episode views were totaled for each panelist, we found that television watchers viewed more episodes on live television than viewers on other platforms used other delivery mechanisms. If you watch some television on a TV set, it seems you are likely to watch a fair bit of it.

While the data from October indicates that primetime television is alive and well, other studies indicate changing consumer behavior. Before accepting a conclusion, we need to ascertain if a viewer's choice of platform in October constitutes a change from prior behavior, and therefore might represent a step along a path toward a wholesale change in medium choice. To answer this question, IMMI evaluated the same six-month period, from May to October.

During the course of those six months, there was no evidence of any definitive shift toward using the computer as an access mechanism. As the summer progresses, there is a slight drop in the number of people who use something other than the television during the month to watch an episode. In the fall, when panelists returned from vacation travel and the networks brought back programming with more loyal audiences, we do see more adoption of the new delivery platforms. People have more access to their computers, and they are more motivated to fill-in viewing of missed episodes from series they follow.

The experimentation with new platforms is, nonetheless, relatively modest. There is not a dramatic change in the level of viewers watching online-only episodes in October over the number in May. Instead, there is a shift to online consumption of episodic content. In other words, the transition to online is not happening to the exclusion of watching television on a TV set.

A more detailed view of October further suggests that use of the television is being augmented rather than replaced. If we rank the viewer groups by the types of delivery mechanisms they use, we see that the number of people who watched episodes on all the available platforms (live television, DVR and online) makes up the second largest group. Once a technology adopter embraces one alternative mode for consuming content, he or she is very likely to embrace many alternative modes when it comes to watching television.

This pattern generally holds true across different kinds of programming. The overall distribution of viewer by their aggregate choice of platform is similar to the distribution found when we examine programming by genre. There are some slight differences, which may become accentuated over time. The number of panelists viewing episodes of dramas online was higher than other genres. Despite being consumed on any platform at roughly the same levels as episodes of other genres, more of the audience used the Internet to watch episodes of dramas. In contrast, the use of a variety of mechanisms to access episodes of reality shows is less pronounced.

Despite these small differences, the higher number of users who will use any and all available platforms to watch an episode over those that choose a subset of the available options leads to the general observation that new platforms are being embraced - not as a replacement for the television experience, but as an augmentation.

Networks with aggressive online strategies are to be applauded, but they need to get away from creating technology-centric silos. Today's consumers expect a variety of ways to get what they want when they want it. They don't choose one platform and abandon another. Similarly, companies would do well to assure that their online division doesn't compete with the mobile division in the same way that the broadcast groups shunned the online group for years. Companies that understand that technology is a mind-set and not a specific application - and can organize around that - will be better equipped to retain their audience and create ad experiences that drive sales.

Advertisers that understand they can reach similar audiences in a variety of places can create cross-platform campaigns that harness the heightened impact of having ad exposure in more than one kind of place. Prior research from immi has suggested that ads seen on more than one delivery platform are more likely to change a consumer's behavior. Happily, with the increasing use of a variety of delivery mechanisms for the same content, consumers are offering advertisers more opportunity to reach out to them in this highly effective manner.

The world is changing, but in this one case, it does appear that more is simply more.

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