A Simple Way to Get TV Viewers to Stop Skipping the Ads

Why "second (and third) screens" make you a better TV viewer—as far as advertisers are concerned, anyway.

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It may be wishful thinking, given the source, but  a recent study of TV viewing habits offers some hope to networks and advertisers used to being on the losing end of any battle with new technology. It seems that there’s an unforeseen side effect when viewers watch TV while also using so-called “second screens” (i.e. smart phone, tablet or laptop): They’re less likely to fast-forward through commercials and more likely to respond to audio-centric ads. To be sure, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt, not only because the study (“Deconstructing the Multi-Screener”) is one of the first to examine TV viewing habits in this way but also because it was conducted by Latitude Research with/for Bravo Media. That’s Bravo as in Real Housewives and Top Chef. Which means the cable network has a strong interest in promoting any research that suggests that a) there are ways to get people to skip fewer ads; and b) second-screen usage somehow makes certain kinds of ads more compelling.

That said, the well-regarded Latitude Research took a serious quantitative and qualitative approach to the project, surveying more than 1,000 people about their viewing habits while also observing more than 100 actual human beings watching TV in a variety of time-shifting-plus-second-screen situations, i.e. DVRs plus various combinations of smart phones, tablets, and laptops.

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More important, the findings pass the smell test. Some 73% of survey participants said that using a second screen while watching a program increased the likelihood that they would refrain from ad-skipping. This makes intuitive sense. If you’re watching a recording of your favorite program, a commercial break presents any number of opportunities for action, only one of which is to fast-forward through to the next act or segment. Among those who don’t head to the kitchen or bathroom, a growing number will use the break to answer emails, conduct show-related research, or perhaps see what other fans think about what they just watched. Advertisers, in fact, might pray that viewers do all three. That’s because multiple second-screen engagement seems to be the big difference-maker. In the qualitative portion of the Latitude-Bravo study, viewers using both a smartphone and a tablet or laptop were about 20% less likely to skip through ads than those using only a smartphone (40% vs. 51%).

Not that single second-screen use isn’t having some effect. According to ratings giant Nielsen, TV commercial retention rates (i.e., viewers choosing not to skip ads) are running at 50% this year, a nearly 9% increase from a rate of 46% in 2007.  There are, of course, many possible reasons for this, but assuming better ads or lazier viewers aren’t foremost among them, the increase suggests that as second-screen device penetration has grown, ad skipping has been reduced.

One takeaway, then, for advertisers and the networks who want to please them, is to get viewers to take TV-watching multi-tasking to the next level. The more screens in front of viewers, the less likely they are to change channels or fast-forward. Bravo is especially mindful of this, offering an array of interactive second-screen opportunities for many of their properties.

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Another takeaway? It’s the sound, stupid. According to the study, “certain verbal elements within ad executions increase the likelihood that a distracted multi-screener will then engage with a TV spot.”  In fact, according to the study, participating viewers were a fifth to a third more likely to cite audio moments over visual ones when asked to identify ads that “grabbed” their attention during the viewing session. Again, this makes intuitive sense. If you’re watching a program and regularly utilize the commercial break to check Facebook or interact with fellow fans, you’re not really watching the commercials but you’re without question paying some kind of secondary attention, if only to know when it’s time to start watching again in earnest. In other words, you’re listening. So that’s where an advertiser has a shot at making you look up and see what all the fuss is about.

An increasingly easy shot, too. One consequence of our society’s increasing reliance on digital devices is that we’re more easily distracted and more easily distractable. That is, not only are our attention spans getting shorter, but the cues required to draw us away from whatever task we’re engaged in need not be as strong as they once were because we’re primed to look for them. We’re halfway waiting for a ping or vibration to let us know that someone wants to connect or comment on something of import to us.  We’re looking, in other words, for the next programming break, commercial or otherwise.

It’s an advertiser’s dream.