Marketing in the Era of Convergence

Looking to expand your customers’ experiences beyond television and onto the web? Want to get them hooked into both in real time? Spiderdance might just be showing the way to go.

The company was founded in 1998 by some interactive media experts who’d cut their teeth designing one of the web’s first convergence events back in 1996: the Microsoft Network’s “NetWits” show. In 1999, Spiderdance teamed up with MTV to create webRIOT, the first play-at-home web/TV game show.

If you never saw webRIOT, here’s how it worked: Several in-studio players (with cutesy “chatroom”-style nicknames) answered trivia questions about videos for prizes. At the same time, one lucky web player was chosen to compete along in real time.

Big deal, right? Other game shows have featured “play at home” participants. But what was cool about webRIOT (and totally different than any game show that’d come before) was that anybody else who wanted to play along could do so in real time via a web-based interface. As questions popped up in the studio, they appeared on web users’ screens at the exact same time. The host (one of the Zappa clan) would then be able to watch the real-time web activity as the live show was broadcast.

The result was audience participation the likes of which the world had never seen. Rather than a passive audience (with one preselected participant), anybody with a web connection (and a TV near the computer) could play along. Convergence.

Since then, Spiderdance has moved on to create interactive shows with the Game Show Network (Inquizition), The History Channel. (History IQ), and TBS (Cyber Bond).

When a station decides to create a program using Spiderdance technology, basically it incorporates its server with a broadcast synchronization engine. The server handles the web part, managing the users and making sure that everything stays on track. The synchronization engine takes its cue from an inaudible signal embedded in the TV program that makes everything start on time.

While Spiderdance technology has been used for quiz shows so far, there’s no reason it has to be limited to that genre. Any TV program that could benefit from synced web content would work. News and sports are obvious candidates, but there’s no reason why television shows couldn’t use this to push “Buy now!” messages about products appearing onscreen or to conduct live polls and gather real-time user feedback about what’s happening onscreen.

Of course, there’s one big question: How many people actually watch TV while surfing the web or vice versa? While there’s been some evidence to show that the numbers are pretty high — Dataquest estimates the number of watcher/surfers to have more than tripled to 27 million between 1998 and 1999 — these numbers still make me wonder. How many people do you know who have TVs in their living rooms or actively watch TV while they’re online? I don’t know too many. Apparently, MTV wasn’t an exception: Approximately one percent of the MTV webRIOT audience actually played along with the show.

But I don’t think this really matters. In fact, as television and PCs become more tightly interwoven through digital cable, gaming consoles, picture-in-picture TV technology, WebTV, and Internet appliances, the distinction may cease to exist altogether. When the TV is the computer, the whole idea of being online or not will be moot.

The big point is that the technology is here (albeit in limited usage), and convergence is going to happen. What marketers need to do now is figure out how to use it.

We need to imagine a world where the one-way metaphor of broadcast is linked to the many-to-many, real-time metaphor of the web. Now that the pure-web e-commerce model has proven so difficult to achieve, we need to start thinking about how we’re going to link all the channels (web, print, TV, and physical) together to create seamless brand experiences.

We’re going to have to figure out how to deal with a population used to accessing information on its own schedule, something that we’re just seeing the beginnings of with TiVo and ReplayTV. And we’re going to have to figure out what kinds of interactivity will work with television.

There’s a lot of work to do. It took years for television to figure out that it wasn’t theater. But with new technologies like Spiderdance, we’re a lot closer to getting on track to the convergence future.

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