As Viewers Migrate To Mobile And Connected TV, Data Helps ESPN Gauge ‘Total Audience’

FanTotalsAs video views shift from desktop and linear to mobile and over-the-top – Hulu, for instance, just revealed more than 58% of streams now happen on OTT devices – programmers like ESPN are using data to track total audience viewing and satiate advertiser demands.

ESPN hired its first global data officer last week, The Weather Company’s Vikram Somaya, to evaluate ways data can improve content development and marketing effectiveness.

Besides data, the word “automation” is increasingly entering sales conversations – ESPN last winter experimented with its first programmatic auction on select “SportsCenter” inventory.

“All parts of our company can see the benefits of getting deep into the data to serve sports fans and our advertisers better,” said Barbara Singer, VP of advertiser insights and strategy at ESPN, this week at the Nielsen Consumer 360 conference in Washington, DC.

But the shift to a data-driven mindset will take time. “There’s a hell of a lot of legacy with television,” Singer said. You’re asking marketers to … think differently and that’s a huge divide to cross.”

ESPN put one 30-second “SportsCenter” ad up for sale programmatically, and is now evaluating the effectiveness of the format since it’s “gotten some play,” said Singer. ESPN has done programmatic direct deals to help advertisers become more targeted in reaching ESPN audiences, but it does not yet make inventory available to exchanges or networks. 

Dave Coletti, ESPN’s VP of digital media research and analytics, noted ESPN has noticed a similar phenomenon to Hulu, in that more than 50% of video views now originate from connected TVs.

That makes measuring the “total audience” figures an important way to prove out scale.  For TV measurement honcho Nielsen, measuring total audience is still a work in progress – but it expects to add counts for over-the-top viewership by the end of the year.

In the meantime, networks and programmers like ABC and ESPN are using data to prove out the incremental value of their discrete audiences not yet counted by TV measurers (which could command higher prices on that inventory).

The company’s measurement strategy benefits both ESPN’s own Fan Relationship Management efforts, which help it unlock patterns in content consumption –registered fantasy players, for example, come to more often on Sundays than non-registered users – and surface important trends to advertising clients.

“AT ESPN, our time frame is very much compressed because a vast majority of viewing occurs live,” he said. “We’ve [discovered] that when you get down to discrete increments of time, there’s very little duplication of audience and people are making choices based on the device most appropriate for them at the time.”

Although it’s invested in multiplatform research for 15 years, over the last few years ESPN has worked with comScore and the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement on an audience measurement initiative called “Project Blueprint.”

The results have proven fruitful.

ESPN learned, for instance, that multiplatform users who tuned into WatchESPN on their mobile device or Xbox ultimately consumed more content. On average, they tuned in for 30 minutes an hour when using four or more platforms as opposed to only five minutes when using a single platform. This, in turn, improved time spent on media and ad recall by an order of about 10-20%.

However, ESPN, like many networks and programmers, still faces considerable gaps in unique audience measurement – such as accounting for co-viewing behaviors in a single household.

“We’re finding it is a predominant platform for usage, not necessarily uniques,” Coletti said. “It’s a very important part of our digital audience. If we’re measuring it in a digital way, understanding co-viewing is critical. … The blessing and curse of digital is you have almost a limitless set of metrics in which to work with.”


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