Marketing to the Distracted Consumer

Marketers love to slap labels on groups of consumers. We’ve got the “millennials” and the “digital natives,” who might be driven around by “soccer moms.” As digital marketers, we’re primarily concerned with the “connected consumer,” and we’re especially interested in “early adopters.” We cater to the “online consumer,” but we’re really interested in reaching out to the “social consumer” who can spread our message through networks of “influencers.” But no matter how far we might skate on the cutting edge, most of us still have to deal with “traditional” consumers who are more often than not “late adopters” or even “digital resisters.”

All those labels are fine for spiffing up our presentation decks and justifying our media plans. But let me give you another label that probably includes most consumers these days: “the distracted consumer.”

Regardless of what category a consumer might fall into based on their demographics and purchasing behavior, chances are that they’ve got more media choices in front of them today than they’ve ever had. Of course TV and radio adoption have been at near-ubiquitous levels for decades now, but Internet usage in the U.S. is also nearly universal at around 80 percent of the U.S. adult population. Mobile usage is even higher with the number of wireless devices in use in the U.S. actually exceeding the number of people in the country. That’s a lot of screens vying for our attention.

But the choice isn’t between one screen or another. Increasingly, consumers (especially those with smartphones and tablet computers) are using more than one screen at a time. Some of the latest figures from Nielsen show that 40 percent of smartphone and tablet users are using their mobile devices while watching TV. Two years ago, Nielsen also discovered that 57 percent of consumers were watching TV and surfing the Internet simultaneously; a number that’s probably increased since then.

A lot’s been made about how overall TV usage has gone up in the past year or so (an average of 22 minutes per month between June 2010 and June 2011), but with the simultaneous TV/Internet/mobile numbers being so high, it seems like one obvious question is being left out of the conversation: are consumers actually paying attention to the TV when it’s on?

Current measurement methods can’t answer that question. However, there’s a growing body of evidence that “multitasking” is somewhat of a myth: we just can’t pay attention to more than one thing at a time in any meaningful way. Some recent studies suggest that multitasking might even hurt short-term memory, especially for older people.

Given the problems with multitasking and the rise in simultaneous screen usage, we as marketers have to ask ourselves: “Is anyone really paying attention?”

Think about it: if consumers’ attention is being split between their iPads and their TVs, how effective are the spots many of us are spending so much money on placing in front of them? Considering the competition for attention, it’s no surprise that it’s things like recommendations from friends, opinions posted online, and product placement that seem to have the biggest impact on consumer brand awareness. It’s also no surprise that so many are turning to social media as a way of reaching consumers. In a media marketplace that’s increasingly fragmented and deficient in consumer attention, social media is one place where people tend to spend lots of time (23 percent by some estimates) engaged with content and opinions.

As screens continue to multiply (especially portable screens in the form of tablets and other mobile devices), it seems reasonable to expect that grabbing the attention of consumers is going to become increasingly difficult. As the distracted consumer flits back and forth between watching TV, texting their friends, looking up information on actors, or just aimlessly surfing while the TV’s on in the background, getting through to them with marketing messages on any device becomes harder and harder.

The real solution to capturing attention would be to be able to synchronize marketing messages and content displayed on one screen (the TV) with what’s being displayed on the other screen (the tablet or smartphone). If a TV spot’s playing, the advertising displayed on whatever the consumer’s viewing on her mobile device would display advertising for the same brand. Each type of ad would then be able to take advantage of what the medium it’s being displayed on does best: the TV spot could focus on emotional impact while the ad displayed on the mobile device could provide a direct response mechanism to allow the consumer to take immediate action based on the their emotional response to the TV spot. The chasm between TV and online would finally be crossed.

But synchronizing the screen experiences doesn’t have to be limited to advertising. Television shows could take advantage of the synchronized experience to provide complementary interactive experiences on consumers’ mobile devices. A cooking show could provide recipes for what’s being made on the TV screen or more in-depth information about ingredients. A science or history show could allow consumers to interact with a simulation that plays off of what’s going on on-screen. A news program could provide pictures, video, and even real-time commentary from viewers on the mobile device while broadcasting their story on the TV in the same way they always have…and possibly even reducing the amount of screen clutter via “bugs” and “crawls” that increasingly crowd our screens. TV dramas could include additional plot elements or even allow consumers to purchase outfits worn by the actors by partnering with online retailers. The possibilities are nearly endless…and somewhat mind-boggling.

Sounds a lot like interactive TV, that long-promised but slow-to-get-into-the-home technology we’ve all been hearing about for years now, doesn’t it? Sure…but being able to synchronize TV and mobile content solves the problem that’s plagued most interactive TV applications: it doesn’t junk up the screen and get in the way of the show.

Unfortunately, the technology to synchronize TV and mobile screens doesn’t exist right now, but it wouldn’t take an intrepid entrepreneur long to develop it. In fact, we already have a model: the Arbitron Portable People Meter. The PPM uses audio tones embedded in broadcasts (inaudible to TV viewers or radio listeners) to signal the PPM device (worn by the Arbitron panelists) about what show is being watched or listened to. The result has been more accurate measurement ratings than “traditional” methods using diaries or even set-top boxes.

Now imagine if a similar system was utilized for synchronizing TV (or even radio) content and what’s shown on a mobile device. By embedding sub-sonic audio tones in programming and coupling that with a feature in a mobile device that picks up those tones and then uses them as cues (almost like subsonic URLs or sound-based QR codes) to load advertising, editorial content, or even trigger social experiences. The system could work in two ways:

  1. Hardware triggering where the mobile hardware itself automatically triggers actions based on the synchronized TV tones.
  2. Software triggering through mobile apps that use the mobile device’s built-in microphone to listen for the tones embedded in the broadcast in order to trigger on-screen content on the mobile device (or load synchronized ads).

The software option would probably be the easiest to implement and the one that could be adopted more quickly by consumers. Modifying an existing mobile browser (such as Safari or Firefox) to load content based on these subaudible tones would be a quick way to get the capability into the hands of consumers. And it wouldn’t be a hard-sell, either: they might not care about synchronized advertising but they’d probably jump at the chance to have what’s happening on the big screen complemented by the small screen they’re holding in their hands. Just look at the growth in social television participation…today’s distracted consumer seems increasingly eager to bridge the gap between mobile and TV. As marketers, we should be eager to bridge the gap, too…or watch the share of attention we pay so dearly for start to get smaller and smaller.

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