"On TV And Video" is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video.
Today’s column is written by Jeremy Hines, advertising practice lead at Infinitive.
The rise of interactive programming has raised eyebrows in media circles. Netflix’s choose-your-own episode of “Black Mirror” and the previous experiment with “Puss in Book” are widely expected to be just the first steps into interactive content.
Much of the industry analysis has focused on the potential responses of Amazon and Apple. Will they go all-in on choose-your-own movies and shows? And will the choose-your-own trend do to current modes of content consumption what streaming has done to appointment television?
A more intriguing question is the impact on the digital advertising business. Not that it’s the first time that viewers have had some power to choose what they wanted to see; Hulu’s Ad Selector, for instance, lets users choose which types of ads and advertisers they prefer.
Consumers stand to win if they are served more relevant ads at the right time. My sense is that the effect will also be a net positive for both advertisers and publishers due to several strategic and technical factors.
Targeting upside through organic data collection
Viewer behavior in choose-your-own formats provides clear and actionable insights into the brands and types of ads consumers would like to see. If viewers are watching an adventure series in which a villain confronts the protagonist, for example, viewers who choose the “fight” scenario over the “flight” option may be more likely to see themselves as risk takers, and so they may prefer an ad for an energy drink rather than one for life insurance.
Outside of the choices, the choose-your-own structure is a more organic way to collect viewer data. Gathering psychographic insights from viewers’ choices is less intrusive than a form they need to fill out and less creepy than following them around the web. Plus, it’s a clearer value proposition; viewers get to participate in storylines and receive more relevant ads.
Optimizing frequency and insertion
Similarly, there is a trade-off in commercial breaks. Choose-your-own formats offer natural breaks for ad insertion. Aligning these breaks to the points where viewers make narrative choices also offers a smooth transition to the next branch of the storyline.
It’s also worth mentioning the shifting structure of video content. Several prominent new series on streaming services feature episodes lasting 10 minutes or less. App-based mobile video formats that last only a few minutes, with scenes limited to 20 seconds, are also gaining traction. While outside the choose-your-own realm, these new formats are similar in that they are breaking down traditional assumptions for episodes, seasons and series. Content seems to be getting less linear all the time. These continuous shifts in content consumption require publishers to be flexible and opportunistic in optimizing their monetization strategies.
Certainly, there is plenty of room for advertisers to get creative in ways they can’t with full-length motion pictures or 40-minute shows with six or eight standard breaks. Just as viewers have greater freedom and flexibility in consuming content, so too do brands in presenting ads. Advertisers should take advantage of this opportunity by presenting creative or product placements keyed to either specific choices viewers make or where they are in the overall storyline. Indeed, a series of ads could present its own narrative.
Flexible and tailored formats
Ad formats continue to diversify, and shorter ads – even the six-second format – may be a strong fit for choose-your-own narrative. Experiments with more interactive formats and different types of insertions are sure to come, just as they have in the online and mobile channels.
Frequency capping can be used to ensure that viewers who toggle quickly between narrative branches aren’t overwhelmed with ads. As brands master formats ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes, there’s little doubt that they will be able to figure out the ideal length and frequency for choose-your-own experiences.
Passive viewing remains a challenge for advertisers and publishers alike. Impressions served to engaged viewers are more valuable than those served to passive viewers, but it can be challenging to delineate between the two groups.
Active participation in the story is a strong proxy for engagement.
More ad-friendly content
Choose-your-own content will likely not be restricted to series like “Black Mirror” or kids’ programming. Consider how reality shows, especially makeover shows, offer wonderful opportunities for ad targeting, as well as monetizing unused content.
For example, there may be footage of housewives or bachelorettes shoe shopping and getting their hair done as they prep for a big night out. Typically, not all of this footage makes it into the final cut. But what if viewers could choose which scenes they wanted to see? That means more ad slots and more psychographic information on the viewers, not to mention higher engagement.
For now, choose-your-own formats won’t let viewers shape the choices that onscreen talent make (the shows are prerecorded, after all). But there are still plenty of opportunities for gaining insights about how viewers feel about what the talent does, allowing them to target ads accordingly.
To prepare for advertising in the choose-your-own world, all stakeholders will need to address a few technical challenges, as they did in the early days of streaming and OTT.
Media and entertainment firms must ensure that their tech stacks and processes are flexible and support robust testing. And they must be careful to balance flexibility in their offerings with standardization in their data models and product portfolios. Indeed, a close study of yield and traffic patterns, such as which story options deliver the most value, will help media firms develop customized sales packages for brands, based on subtle behavioral insights.
It’s early days yet for interactive content, but it’s not too soon for media and publishing groups to start thinking about the implications. Yes, ad operations teams are still seeking to master all the details of OTT and convergence, but the history of those innovations makes it clear that getting a head start will pay off.