Interactive’s Sea Change

The IPO-of-the-day syndrome isn’t the only thing making it feel like it’s 1999 again. There’s something else. An awareness that interactive will change everything permeates the Zeitgeist.

Only this time, things really are changing: consumer attitudes, media usage and consumption, content, creative, formats, metrics, and consumer buying patterns.

News from this week alone should be sufficient to convince anyone to fasten her seatbelt. It’s already a very bumpy ride.

For starters, the Online Publishers Association (OPA) conducted a study that addresses the where-the-boys-are problem TV networks are struggling with (they appear to have found the girls, too). The coveted 18-34-year-old demographic composes 24 percent of the U.S. population. Yet it accounts for a disproportionate 34.1 percent of the online population. Greystone Communications’ John Carey, who conducted the study, says this group takes access for granted, “wherever, whenever, and under their control.”

It’s the first generation that grew up with the Internet.

These young people are ditching their PCs in favor of laptops — with wireless broadband access. Carey was amazed how many computers he found in kitchens. It’s not as if these people don’t watch TV. They do. But “chaotic” schedules make concepts such as primetime all but meaningless. And when they do watch, it’s often with laptop and cell phone at hand (they own lots of gadgets).

When Carey asked his subjects if they read a newspaper, the typical response was affirmative. One young man replied, “Sure. I go to boston.com every day.”

You know that debate about the extent to which online drives offline sales? Well, when this demographic sees something in a brick-and-mortar store that catches their fancy, they’ll often go home and buy it on the Web. “No lines,” shrugged one young woman Carey interviewed.

In other news this week, a Yankelovich survey reveals 54 percent of all consumers say they’d avoid buying products that overwhelm them with advertising; 61 percent say the amount of advertising “is out of control”; and 69 percent claim interest in products and services that help them skip or block advertising. Despite this, total ad spend rose in 2003, and is expected to rise again this year, too.

What’s interesting is how divergent that spend is becoming. Advertisers are reacting to consumer frustration with ad clutter and an increasing ability to opt or tune out of commercial messages. “Thank God, knock on wood, we don’t have to deal with a TiVo for print,” one brand advertiser told The New York Times on Wednesday.

At one end of the spectrum, ad spend is trending toward cut-to-the-chase search advertising, the fastest-growing medium in history. At the other end, long-form, soft-sell advertainment formats (e.g., BMW’s films, Amex’s Seinfeld/Superman spots, and DKNY’s “Road Stories”) are migrating offline, to TV, movie theatres, and DVDs.

This raises interesting questions. Will branded entertainment keep TV viewers (and TiVo users) glued to the screen? And will consumers embrace long-form messages when opt-out isn’t an option? A DVD I rented this week contained a long-form ad I’d already seen. Fast-forward was disabled. Three days later, I’m still irritated thinking about it.

Online or off-, branded advertainment relies less on metrics than on the kind of blind faith only brand marketers possess. So far, no one seems to be measuring (at least as far as they’re saying) how advertainment is affecting brand perceptions. Still, clicks, eyeballs, and box-office receipts are counted, noted, and sometimes issued in press releases.

Long-format advertainment distributed online enjoys two advantages that can’t easily be replicated in the real world. First is viral marketing. When trusted friends exchange links and recommendations, the content has an advantage even before it’s viewed.

Online also lacks decency standards. When will chickens in garter belts, decapitated cats, or Bush wielding a chainsaw make it to your local station? Don’t hold your breath.

And that bring us back to those 18-34-year-olds. “Satire is a huge thing for them,” Carey emphasizes. Offline, there are standards and practices. Online, your decency standards are your own. Content that would be disallowed in other media because it would scare off advertisers can, on the Internet, be the advertising (Nielsen confirms those “missing men” are surfing plenty of porn). Back to that chicken’s “have it your way” message.

The media status quo is becoming radically altered as traditional media strive to keep up with what are now very real challenges from online.

“Your newspaper is in peril,” John Lavine, director of the Readership Institute, told editors and publishers Wednesday at a Newspaper Association of American (NAA) and American Society of Newspaper Editors conference. He was referring to plummeting readership among younger consumers. At the same conference, John Sturm, president of the NAA, warned publishers that people demand instant content on what matters to them. He urged newspapers to use technology to provide it.

And TV continues to adopt online’s tactics. Text screen crawls are common (hard to believe they’re only a couple years old, as are floating ads). And in addition to long-format ads, an increasing number of broadcasters are commissioning search and keyword research, knowing that’s how viewers will find programming in the not-too-distant future. They also know the most coveted demographic is already well equipped with computers, cell phones, and MP3 players. Can a very TiVo Christmas be far off?

Finally, in case things don’t seem to be changing enough, The New York Times reported yesterday the new after-school destination of choice for the 18-and-under set is the public library. In 1996, 28 percent of libraries offered public Web access. Now, 95 percent of libraries are wired. And they’re teeming with the consumers of tomorrow.

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