Switching off, checking out: as broadcast viewership declines, how will brands get in people’s faces in the future?

I get to watch a lot of focus groups in my role. Peering into the life of the ‘man on the street’ from behind the safety of a fake mirror. And between watching them double-hand club sandwiches and squint with confusion at subtly reworked customer value propositions for juice brands, there are a great many bigger truths you learn about how their lives are changing and how they are responding to the marketing world. And a key human truth that everyone in this industry should be aware of (and I suspect deep down they are) is that a lot of people really aren’t watching broadcast TV anymore. 

There has been considerable hand-wringing lately over the drop-off in Nielsen’s audience numbers (the recession is over! A mild winter! Domestic travel!). But talk to people about their lives and the drop is much easier to understand and plain to see. People of all ages—not just those pesky Gen Y’s—are increasingly downloading or watching content on-demand as their primary viewing experience. Not everyone, of course, but you will get at least one in any group of around six or seven people. Add to this the MySky households, who watch a lot of their content in a similar ‘how and when I want’ way, and there is very real evidence of a fundamental tipping point in behaviour that wasn’t there to any great degree 12 months ago. 

People are picking and choosing what content they watch and how they watch it. And it’s a behaviour that’s intrinsically rewarding once adopted: it’s an aspiration to watch less TV, it offers a sense of control and, rather counter-intuitively, it makes decision-making about what to watch easier by creating a focus on key shows. 

The really fascinating aspect of this is that we see the same seachange in behaviour mirrored in how clients are talking about the role of TV advertising. This last year has seen a massive shift around discussing the role of emerging media channels as a replacement to some of the roles TV advertising has traditionally played and there is an understanding of what these channels can and can’t achieve from a consumer perspective, especially as this relates to brand building. 

With both the client and the consumer now looking at alternatives to network TV, it probably doesn’t matter what the people-meter numbers are saying. The change has already been set in motion. Central to this change, of course, is the concept of consumers essentially doing away with TV advertising. And this is where things get interesting for marketers. Comparing the non-broadcast TV watchers in groups to their more traditionally-behaving peers, those who’ve made this viewing change really have little idea of what’s happening currently with brands and communication generally, despite a continued exposure to every other media channel. They appear, in talking to them, to have largely ‘checked out’ of advertising altogether. 

The advertising industry has always evangelised TV as the most effective method for reach and persuasion, but what a year’s worth of focus groups suggests is that what it did in the mix may have been underplayed. Without it as the glue to a campaign, the thing that generates the necessary weight of exposure to an idea, it seems as if traditional brand campaigns simply stop functioning altogether. Other channels simply can’t ‘get in the face of consumers’ with the necessary vociferousness.

So how do you effectively advertise brands when TV is removed? YouTube and Facebook offer a chance to get beautiful content in front of people, but how often? How many times does someone watch an ad, even one as wonderful as Jean Claude Van Damme’s effort for Volvo? How we think about marketing needs to change. It won’t be simply a matter of moving what is done currently to new channels, because new channels won’t act in the same way. A reliance on brand-led communications to drive engagement will be found wanting. And all parties in the marketing services space are still grappling with this.

Whatever future success actually looks like, it will be found by starting with the consumer. Getting back to basics and looking at how they behave around consumption of products, services and media. As a marketing industry, we often feel we know the consumer so well that we can forget that everything is changing. Sometimes it pays to settle in behind the mirror and check in with what’s really going on. 

  • ​Andrew Lewis is managing director of The Research Agency. [email protected]
  • This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb edition of NZ Marketing. 

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