All media are vehicles for persuasion and influence; TV power, however, was, until recently, assumed to be bordering on magic. Under a spell - this is how some nostalgic advertisers choose to remember consumers subjected to TV advertising in the time before TiVo. Back then, it seems, only the first Newtonian law - that bodies at rest stay at rest - prevented consumers from dashing, like Harold and Kumar, to a burger joint at the moment its commercial faded.
This nostalgia isn't unjustified. TV wields a near-hypnotic hold on the attention of its couch-reclined audiences, thanks to the combination of viewers' relaxed passivity and our universal hard-wired sensitivity to movement and novelty in the immediate environment. Camera-angle changes, cuts, pans, tilts and zooms on a large screen, along with sudden noises, inevitably activate what is called "orienting response," an instinctive visual or auditory reaction to any sudden or novel stimulus. Discovered by Ivan Pavlov in 1927 (yes, he of the dog and the bell), the orienting response involves slowing of the heart and increased blood flow to the brain, with changes in brain wave patterns indicating intense gathering and storing of the information.
Although a single orienting response only lasts seconds, TV continuously generates these responses in its viewers, keeping their eyes glued to the screen. Extensive research also confirms that orienting response time is when human attention capacity is at its highest - the optimal time to internalize the fact that a 15-minute call can save you 15 percent or more on car insurance.
The proliferation of broadband content opened new ways to reach consumers with a video ad. On average, 134 million people watched TV content online every month in the second quarter of this year, according to Nielsen's Three Screen Report. The main barrier to investing in online video advertising, however, lies in a perception that an ad running in a video stream does not have the same power to hold viewers' attention, and thereby to deliver the same branding impact, as an ad on a TV program. Online video generates orienting responses just as well; however, being in a more active, "lean-forward" mode, online video viewers are, ostensibly, less susceptible to video hypnosis. Moreover, there is no danger of missing a part of the show by ignoring the ad. Even when encountering mandatory pre-roll ads, users can always open a new browser window and wander elsewhere on the Web, returning to the desired video content after the ad has finished playing in the background.
To keep users from getting annoyed and still deliver the message, shorter and less intrusive video ad formats are periodically debuting online. The hard questions, however, remain: "Are these new forms of advertising really noticed by viewers?" and "Are they really effective?"
To answer these questions, Starcom MediaVest Group embarked on an in-depth research program to understand how people use video content and react to advertising content delivered by broadband streams, and test new advertising models within the online video environment.
The initial study, code-named Project Tiffany (in honor of the famed repository of shiny, mesmerizing objects), was conducted by Kelly Andrews, senior vice president and director of consumer research and analytics at MediaVest, in partnership with msn and nbc. The in-depth qualitative and quantitative online video research included a forced-migration and television-deprivation study: Participants went two weeks without their TV sets, searching for their favorite shows and sports events online. Both TV and online behaviors were logged, which allowed a better understanding of consumer online video consumption relative to linear (traditional) television.
According to Andrews, "The most important finding from the study is actually very simple - watching TV content online is different. And it is different enough to justify that the models for content development, distribution and pricing must be different as well."
The study found that the online video experience is more complex than TV viewing. Online video gives viewers far more opportunities to bail out from ads - and from video content altogether - when their expectations are not being met. Despite the initial hypothesis, the quantitative portion of Project Tiffany did find some support for repurposed 30- and 15-second TV commercials online. The quick and concise 5-second ads customized for online, however, fared better. The brief and contextually relevant messages were reaching their goals without losing viewers to alternative online content.
This may be explained precisely by the more active mode of online video viewing. When actively selecting the content, viewers do not need those extra seconds for the orienting response to kick in: Leaned forward, they are already in a heightened state of attention, geared up to memorize and comprehend the message right away.
To explore the issue further, smg and VivaKi activated The Pool - a first-of-its-kind industry-testing initiative built on the collaborative participation of a select group of clients, content providers and tech companies - all of whom are "pooling" insights, thought leadership and resources to test new advertising models.
The first wave of the multiyear program ("Lane 1" of "The Pool") focused on online video concepts, and united smg clients such as Allstate, Applebee's, Capital One and Nestle Purina, with content partners Broadband Enterprises, cbs Interactive, Discovery Communications, Hulu, Microsoft Advertising, Platform-A and Yahoo. The second wave of The Pool is focused specifically on short-form videos and includes new partners Denny's, Walgreens and Walmart, along with Google's YouTube - the biggest player in this content format.
According to Helen Katz, smg senior vice president and research director, "The mission of The Pool is ... through the pooling of resources and the uncovering of consumer insights, create industry alignment for engaging models of the future. The overarching finding that we can share is when you can rally the industry behind a viable, consumer-tested ad model, we believe you can scale solution faster and allow us to begin to keep pace with ever-evolving media habits of the consumer." Results from "Lane 1" of The Pool will be released in February 2010, "Lane 2" by October.
Online video is not limited to the computer screen anymore: According to Forrester, about 9 million homes in the United States watch at least some online video on a TV set in a typical month. In fact, studying online video advertising also grants insight into different laws of attention and engagement that apply in advanced TV and mobile video - media models that will eventually replace the traditional TV. It is encouraging to learn that there is no need to put consumers in a trance in order to captivate them.