The Art of Mobile Multitasking

My company recently published our annual Outlook Report. My contribution was an essay summarizing the results of a study we conducted in partnership with Yahoo to better understand mobile and tablet multitasking while watching TV.

We’ve received some great feedback on the report overall and the study in particular. I’ve also presented the results a bunch of times in the last few weeks, and I thought it might be good to take the piece a step farther by providing an overview of the conversations it has sparked and some of the questions that have come up as a result.

Very few people seemed surprised by how common the behavior is (80 percent of our respondents reported that they mobile multitask while watching TV), but there were several surprises when it came to what people do on those devices.

Forty-four percent of multitaskers are surfing content that’s completely unrelated to what they are watching, which may be bad news for big TV advertisers. There’s certainly a potential distraction factor there. But this point has also sparked some interesting discussion/debate around consumers’ ability to comprehend media and messages even while viewing content from multiple sources. The digital generation is growing up multitasking and likely has become quite skilled at it. I’ve watched teenagers texting while walking down the busy streets around Times Square and have been amazed at how deftly they dodge crowds even while hammering away on their phones with both thumbs. Still, it’s clear that some of those rating points advertisers are paying good money for are reaching viewers who may not be fully engaged with the spots.

On the flip side, roughly a quarter of our multitaskers reported that they frequently look up information related to a commercial they just saw. That’s a healthy click-through rate, so to speak, and it’s probably the data point that has sparked the most discussion. What does this mean to advertisers? At a minimum, as stated in the essay, it means it’s high time to get serious about mobile-optimized sites, and it’s probably a good idea to tie the site into your TV campaign somehow. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s been argued that the prevalence of this behavior indicates a need to fundamentally reinvent how advertisers develop media strategies and creative ideas for TV. The extent to which digital campaigns should integrate with or reflect your offline campaigns has been a subject of debate for more than a decade, but I would suggest that some of the best examples of properly creating a “360-degree campaign” haven’t just used digital adaptations of the offline idea. Rather, they began with an idea that was digitally savvy and begged for interaction/engagement. It’s not easy, and the great examples are few and far between. But it’s also not a new idea; this data is just another indicator that our processes and approaches need to change to reflect the realities of rapidly changing consumer behavior.

Another question that frequently came up was the impact of DVR usage, and we looked at that in the study. It had a surprisingly low impact. Fifty-five percent of people multitask while watching a recorded show versus 59 percent for live TV – a relatively small drop. We also asked specifically about multitasking during commercials. Here, DVR usage had a bigger impact, but it was still lower than I had expected – it drops from 61 percent during live to 52 percent during recorded. As many folks have commented, those are some hard-core multitaskers: you’ve got to figure that many of them are fast-forwarding through ads, and yet that doesn’t seem to deter them from mobile multitasking. Remote in one hand, phone in the other – one eye on the big screen looking for the show to come back and the other on the mobile screen. I get a headache just thinking about it.

We’re continuing to explore all of the implications for marketers and are looking forward to discussing more. I welcome your comments and questions below.

Lastly, just a quick note that my company will be posting the full study results including new data not released in the Outlook Report and not featured here in the next week or so. A link will be posted on the essay page, so check back shortly.

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