This week marked some significant events in the quest for a measure of engagement with and consumption of advertising. Announcements included the first round of C3 metrics, a new ad-insertion software company backed by some major players, and a partnership between Nielsen and ESPN on total audience measurement. These new developments bring them a number of new implications, but the old questions of what really constitutes engagement, and with what, remain.
A question raised in my mind about C3 is if we should be looking at engagement with TV programming or with ads, or both, and how could we be looking at those metrics in a holistic way? Although the collective effect of content and advertising may matter, there are still no guarantees.
Part of the engagement calculus is about who actually sees the ad, and this week's C3 numbers present the networks with three implications. Not surprisingly, the new metric indicated that people tend to tune out for commercials; last week, an average of 3% of the audience watched the program but skipped the ads. First and most obviously, there is now a number associated with channel surfing that advertisers can point to as lost audiences that should lead to reduced ad prices.
The corollary issue for the networks is that engagement with the programming becomes even more important to keep what viewers there are present and attentive. Research conducted by Henry Jenkins and others on the viewers of American Idol indicated that fans of the program were less likely to channel surf during ad breaks and paid more attention to commercials. In my very first post for the C3 blog, I talked about the findings of OMD, a research group that found an "engaged viewer" to be eight times more valuable than a non-engaged viewer. Although engagement with the ad and brand preference drove just under 70% of that figure, the balance was engagement that the advertisement was placed in. Even though I wasn't convinced of those particular figures, a relationship between engagement with programming and brand preference and ad effectiveness does make intuitive sense. If networks can quantify this audience, they could make a powerful argument for holding the line, if not increasing, the costs of ads.
Third, it increases the incentives to get creative with how ad placement and effectiveness are measured . BlackArrow, the new ad insertion service company, can switch the commercials in DVR-recorded programs, and that type of technology may change ad effectiveness measurement as well as prices, contracts and even the sellers. For now the technology seems to address mostly temporal issues - i.e. a studio that only wants to pay for the Thursday night spot advertising a Friday film, not for someone to see the ad on Sunday night after opening weekend - but if data could be collected and effectively mined, ads could be both dynamic and targeted, as they are online. In theory, this would fit nicely with C3, albeit make reporting a bit more complex.
The flipside is the push for total audience measurement across different types of media to make what little time the customer's attention is captured count for more. This is part of that holistic yardstick. The more engaging the programming, in theory, the more audiences will seek out a property across different forms of media, the more opportunities they have to see and be engaged with ads. The problem is not so much measuring impressions, but identifying behavioral patterns and linking those to actual individuals. The hard part now is not so much collecting data but sorting through it and linking it together in a coherent way that explains distinct behavioral types. The same, I would argue, is true of measuring ad efficacy.
But then come the nagging questions. Even if we could define, measure and create profiles of engaged audience members, which is more important to be engaged in: the ads that encourage people to buy or the program that brings them to the ads? Does transmedia storytelling really have an impact on engagement with the program? Does that translate into sales? Sales for whom - cable companies, networks, others?
And where is the audience in this? Will targeted advertising get irritating, or will they ask for a more authentic live TV experience? Will they even visit transmedia storytelling, or experience fatigue with the concept as new extensions proliferate?
More than anything, the question I am beginning to ask is: is it really possible engage any specific demo with ads or content, or do we need a different framework?