Advertisers must keep a cool head with technology and its constant march of improvements.
There is a tendency to view the world, especially the media world, in terms of new and old technologies. More specifically, we like to imagine that there is a constant tension between the way people have traditionally viewed, listened to, and read content and whatever fresh innovation has come along. New technology is always better, naturally, in a purely objective sense. That is, pictures are clearer, selections are wider, and the ability to interact is greater. Fans of the new believe that, because the tools and methods are (so-called) better, the experience is more attractive and valuable -- and that the old way will naturally wither away.
Of course, that doesn't always happen. For the past 10 years or so, there have been nearly daily pronouncements of television's death. The industry is seen as a rusting hulk, straining to survive despite new technology's increasing reality. Why would anyone continue to watch television, that is, sit in her living room and look at a screen connected to a cable or an antenna at a certain time to see a certain show when so many other options let her control the experience? When you then consider that commercial skipping is now as easy channel flipping, you can't possibly see any real future for TV. Not only are there better options for viewers, but TV's primary revenue model of inserting ads into content seems like an anachronism, dangerous -- if not ridiculous -- to hang on to.
And yet, Nielsen just announced that Americans watched a record amount of television in the third quarter of 2008. We watched an average of 142 hours of TV a month. That's up over five hours a month from last year's number and part of a decade-long trend of increased TV watching. Technologies that challenge the traditional model of television consumption have crept up as well. We are watching more time-shifted content (i.e., using a TiVo or other DVR to record a show and watch it later or using an on-demand video service from the cable provider) and more video online. But those numbers remained dwarfed by the monster that is TV watching.
Reasons for Watching TV
Advertisers must keep a cool head with technology and its constant march of improvements. We are far from immune to the siren call of the new; in fact, much of the advertising business is built on getting people attracted to our products because they are new or improved. But technology must be thought of as a vehicle to reaching our ultimate goals of making sales and generating relationships.
There are, at first, two big ways that the ad industry will interpret these numbers. How you read the tea leaves often has more to do with the nature of your business than a clear sense of how the world works. The first is to declare the traditional television model to be not only sturdy but implacable. Sure, the Internet is awesome, but no family is going to gather around the laptop this holiday season to visit a Web site. The other extreme is to think something along the lines of "Just you wait." Next year, a few manufacturers will offer television sets with Wi-Fi capability. When the device allows the family the depth of choices available from the online world, then you can seal the coffin of broadcast.
Of course, neither one of these extreme positions is right. Neither one is even helpful or based in reality, and adopting one or the other polarizes thinking and leads directly away from what we all want: campaigns that integrate different types of media into a single campaign.
Past Hours to Behavior
The problem with numbers is that they are just numbers. If I told you that I spent four hours at the mall last week, you may jump to a conclusion but you wouldn't know the whole story. I could have been shopping, but I also could have been collecting cans for a food drive. The volume of hours spent is never the whole story. We have to dive more deeply into what is actually being done during those hours before building a marketing strategy.
So what's happening on TV? Well, it's impossible to be certain, but the last 10 years have been interesting. To begin with, TV's quality has gone up considerably. Out of the reality-TV craze (which is not totally over) have emerged "30 Rock," "The Office," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," and a handful of other truly good shows. As well, the political world has been...intense. And in that wake, cable news channels have created several properties tuned for viewers' needs, be they the yelling heads of Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly or the direct hits of "The Daily Show." TV is more worthwhile to watch.
On the Internet, we've seen the rise of social media. Increasingly, every activity we conduct online is done with the consideration of our social graph. We now find ourselves sharing nearly everything, from the previously inconsequential moments captured on our cell phone cameras to a consistent flow of information about what we're doing and how we're feeling.
The fact is there's no war between new and old technologies. Rather, the media ecosystem is evolving. One technology doesn't push the other out. Each technology seeks to establish a symbiotic relationship with the other. The problems only occur when proponents of one or the other decide that their technology is destined for ultimate leadership. That simply isn't the way the world works.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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