Avoiding Assumptions Is Key When We Don’t Know What We’ll Be Watching In 6 Months

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"On TV And Video" is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video.

Today’s column is written by Ben Antier, co-founder and chief product officer at Publica.

2020 is shaking our society to its core. While health and social justice remain priorities for all of us, we are also facing significant challenges to our long-standing assumptions of how business should be conducted.

In almost every industry, coping with this successfully means analyzing trends, preparing for different outcomes and reacting quickly as new contingencies develop. In the TV industry, where content is scheduled and sold months ahead of time through upfronts, this uncertainty is particularly difficult to manage for both content producers and advertisers alike.

Unpredictable programming

Viewing habits are changing rapidly, which makes predicting what will be popular even in the short term extraordinarily difficult. One of the clear leaders in content creation, Netflix, doesn’t pretend to know in advance. Instead of simply using its data to power content recommendations, it is designing programming about concepts and ideas that have proven to capture and retain consumer eyeballs. And it’s working: Netflix added almost 10 million subscribers last quarter. 

Sports, long the powerhouse of live TV, faces even bigger challenges when making predictions about what programming will be like in the upcoming months. While most major leagues are coming back online, it is clear that we haven’t passed through the pandemic and come out the other side. This makes it very difficult to predict scheduling for future events – or even the formats. Only 22 NBA teams will resume play, while the number of games MLB will play has been a moving target. But, if entire series can be produced in a few months based on data, sports competitions can also be rethought and repackaged.

Ultimately, for both prerecorded and live entertainment, the key to success in 2020 and beyond for marketers is being able to shift investment to where investment is proving to blossom, not to where it has done so historically.

New monetization models for new times

The swell of changes we are seeing not only affect content consumption patterns, but the value of that content and how we buy it. The obvious example is the 2020 upfronts, the longstanding pillar of television marketing that has suddenly become a major question mark. How can an advertiser commit to spend budgets ahead of time for content that may never air?

Marketers should infer from this new reality that they too should shorten their production cycles, becoming more flexible while remaining open to new ideas and tactics. They must get comfortable leaning into the tools and tactics that enable them to spend efficiently to reach their audiences, wherever, however and whatever they are watching.

Addressable television has matured and TV can now be bought like digital, with the same targeting and measurement capabilities. Further, OTT power players such as Disney’s Hulu, ViacomCBS’s PlutoTV and NBCUniversal’s Peacock provide new flexibility to reach audiences while offering tools that allow marketers to adapt as the world changes. For example, Roku is placing a large bet on its OneView platform, which allows clients to lock in performance and frequency guarantees across platforms, while enabling brands to change media buys and creative across ZIP codes on short notice as COVID-19 impacts viewing patterns. Disney, too, is looking to offer a new level of targeting power, allowing marketers to make single buys that provide flexible but guaranteed inventory across properties, such as Hulu, ABC and ESPN, and platforms, including desktop, mobile or CTV.

With increasing flexibility, it would be a mistake to make long-term media investments based on what seems likely to succeed. Just as is true for content producers, marketers must avoid assumptions; success will come to those who think, test, measure and adapt. They will gain momentum, traction and confidence not by making large investments in good ideas, but by experimenting, building upon proven successes and letting go of what doesn’t work.

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