Leaning In to Interactive TV

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As smaller gadgets with screens made inroads into television’s territory, TV makers staked their claim on TV watching as a “lean-back” experience. That makes sense. After a long day of writing articles on a 22-inch monitor — and paying bills, answering texts/emails and reading news on my 6.7-inch phone — I’m ready at night to sit back and be entertained by a basketball game or any number of fictional, dysfunctional families streaming on the big screen.

But the lean-back experience is changing, and it’s happening fast. Now that 82% of U.S. households have a connected TV, according to Statista data, it seems the TV watching experience is only going to get more interactive as brands have a direct line to the over-the-top video viewer. Roku and various brands don’t want me to watch in repose: They want me to be an active participant when I watch TV.

Many viewers already have their phones nearby. Some proponents of interactive advertising propose taking advantage of that. (Source: Yahoo)

I’m frequently prompted these days to participate in the viewing process, though I’m so accustomed to being force-fed commercials that for months I’ve just tuned out at the commercial break and waited patiently for the ads to run like it’s 2010. It’s not like I just sit there staring blankly: I make good use of commercial breaks by making a bathroom run, refreshing an adult beverage or playing a quick video game. Sometimes I even watch the commercials.

It dawned on me slowly — like the realization one has when her kitten one day has morphed into a full-size cat — that Roku is giving me a choice about the commercials I watch. I don’t have to sit there and take what the platform sends. Every so often I see a screen asking me if I want to watch one 30-second interactive ad — “Interact with our sponsor for 30 seconds and get back to your show” — rather than sitting through the multi-ad sequence of 15- and 30-second default ads.

For the first time Sunday, I opted in, while watching Peacock. That in itself was a bit startling because I had to make a decision on a time clock. With 17 seconds to go, I clicked “Continue” to avoid going to the “normal break with multiple commercials.” Phew. When the commercial I opted into began — turns out it was for Discover — I had to make another decision. Did I want to explore the Discover cash back feature?

I was a trouper and clicked “ok,” and that brought up a QR code. I had to scramble for my phone to capture the image, and that took me to a screen from my phone where I “check now” to see if I would be pre-approved for a credit card offer. That’s way too much personal information to give via a tag-team operation of the TV and smartphone so I closed out. If it had been a coupon for free guac at Chipotle they may have had me.

I have to admit, I sort of liked participating in the commercial experience. Better one commercial than several, and it’s interesting to see which commercials Roku thinks I’m attuned to — especially since two of us live here. The QR code aspect is a little like opening an Advent calendar window: You suspect it’s not going to wow you, but you’re curious about the surprise.

But then the reporter in me kicks in because this commercial wasn’t sent to me anonymously. I wasn’t lumped in with 80 million other viewers watching the same linear TV show. How did the algorithm decide to choose me for this particular ad? And was it targeted to me or my partner, Liz? Why did we get a Discover ad and not an ad from United trying to get us to take a flying vacation for the first time in almost two years? For that matter, if the algorithm was really smart, it would shoot me an offer for a free sample at the Lindt store, and it may have gotten an immediate response.

This mock-up illustrates one way that Roku is suggesting that advertisers can interact with viewing audiences: create polling ads. (Source: Roku)

It seems this is just the beginning of participatory TV. MNTN, a connected TV marketing platform, quoted an ad agency executive who said that connected TV “took from everybody,” including linear TV and even social media. MNTN believes that’s because of connected TV’s ability to “merge the often separated worlds of performance and brand marketing,” and that is “redefining the digital advertising arena as we know it.” Over 41% of advertisers are moving their ad dollars from social media to connected TV, it said.

In a blog post for Google, Catherine Sullivan, CEO of Omnicom’s media agency, PHD, said brands can achieve the same reach they get from linear TV now that the number of U.S. streaming households has passed the number of traditional pay-TV homes; plus, they get perks from the interactive world. For advertisers, that means personalizing ads at scale, using video ad sequencing “to tell powerful stories” and “driving action with interactive features,” Sullivan said.

Roku has an explainer on its website showing potential advertisers the three ways they can reach viewers.  One is a direct overlay product ad that shows up in the corner of the screen on top of the creative to reveal a product announcement, coupon or other offer. The example prompted the viewer to click ok to get an offer for video games by text. Consumers have to opt in with their email address or phone number, which could be a deal-killer for some.

In the second example, text in the corner of the screen tells car shoppers the address of a local dealer. That’s much like what car makers have been doing for years — showing viewers the names and addresses of local businesses — but the difference here is that you don’t have to scramble for a pen and paper. You click with the Roku remote to have the dealer info sent to your phone — maybe even with a prompt to set up an appointment. That’s convenient.

The other way Roku is pitching advertisers is for polling commercials that are designed to “re-engage viewers” and create a more interactive experience. I may or may not participate in a poll asking me, like the example Baskin-Robbins ad asks, if I could eat mango ice cream every day, but a more compelling question might. “Interactive polling TV ads are all about getting the viewer to sit up and answer a question — something fun or interesting that makes them remember your brand,” Roku says.

It’s the new TV world. So much for leaning back…

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