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Does Viewership Equal Buyership

Over the last two shows we've talked a lot about the relevance of TV ads. And it always comes back to the fact that TV is still the dominant media and so it's still the most reliable way to reach the biggest audiences.

But in an email discussion with Mitch Joel after this past week's show, I started to wonder, "Does audience size even matter anymore?"

Think about it. Even though the recent Nielsen three-screen report shows that TV is still getting the most eyeballs and that co-viewing (surfing and viewing at the same time) is hot, does that mean that TV is still an effective way to reach folks? Some might argue that co-viewing says that less ads during the program and more ads online would be a smarter strategy, because that's where the audience is interacting.

Then there's the study by Xyte Research that we covered in episode 107. If we can believe the data, the disproportionate level of "word people" in advertising, coupled with the demands of messaging blocked into 30 second increments, makes it near impossible for ad professionals to communicate effectively to the bulk of our audience via TV ad units.

And of course there's also a point brought up by Eamon Boyle from The Martin Agency. In episode 61 (here's the specific clip from a Fast Takes episode), Eamon pointed out that his research was revealing that most of a typical media buy is completely wasted unless the ad unit is run at the beginning of a show. People just aren't paying attention to ads during the middle of a program.

There's only one conclusion I can draw from all of this: mass market TV advertising simply doesn't work as advertised.

The Flawed Promise

The promise of TV is that if you want your message to reach the widest possible audience, you need a national broadcast TV buy. And big brand successes are held up as proof that it works. Trouble is, these successes don't happen in a vacuum. Given that budgets are nearly limitless at this level, success is not being achieved via TV, but with ubiquity. The message of the biggest brands is everywhere, so of course the TV buy is "working." The name is already recognizable. The message and promise have already been communicated. The TV ad is just there to cement that recognition or expand that promise. But in most cases the ad unit itself is not achieving anything except providing an entertainment and providing a reminder.

But take away that scale of ubiquity and the TV ad does very little. Because the audience can't digest enough in those 30 seconds to truly understand that brand and make any decision worth making. So it doesn't matter how big your audience is. A brand-building ad in a vacuum is quickly forgotten. The challenger brand would do better to either be aggressive on offer and forget the brand (Denny's free breakfast, anyone?) or plow the money into much more targeted efforts like search marketing or beefing up more interactive experiences that encourage engagement with the brand online or in person.

We in advertising need to come to grips with the fact that people don't understand what we say — they understand what they experience. So the more we give them experiences with our brand, the more they will care about what we say. 

And let me be clear that this is not an anti-TV rant. But TV advertising's role needs to be re-imagined with an understanding of how brands are really built. They aren't built en masse. They are built one customer experience at a time.

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