A common theme during last week’s excellent Future TV Ads conference in London was the battle between “platforms” (TV service providers) and broadcasters. Platforms such as Sky and Virgin gave upbeat assessments of the opportunities presented by IP technologies to improve the power and value of advertising. Broadcasters, on the other hand, were markedly more nervous about the impact on their own businesses.
Virgin Media is currently gung-ho about its TiVo boxes: 220,000 households (6% of Virgin’s TV customers) were using these devices by the end of October and we were assured that the number is already “much higher”. 79% of those households are accessing an average of 4.5 “apps” each week.
By deploying more advanced technologies such as TiVo, Virgin has been able to trial new advertising models, and claims that they have “all been highly successful”. While this somehow doesn’t quite ring true, Virgin believes it is in a good position to “create the next generation advertising marketplace” and furthermore that “apps will be a fundamental and significant part of the television advertising toolkit”.
Sky’s Jeremy ester (director, brand strategy) highlighted two key challenges for advanced advertising: ad serving technology, and measurement. Sky is helping to address the latter challenge by finally fulfilling the potential of its interactive set-top boxes to develop improved advertising research. The company already has 20,000 households in its SkyView customer panel, which have opted in to sharing set-top box-based information about viewing patterns. Sky plans to expand this panel towards “hundreds” of thousands of homes over the coming year or so, and in fact Tester suggested there was no reason why the base should not ultimately comprise millions of households. Sky’s strategy is leading towards the deployment of Sky’s AdSmart targeted advertising service on set-top boxes by spring 2013.
Another important piece of BSkyB’s strategy is SkyIQ, a subsidiary which evolved out of the acquisition of a division of Experian in 2010. SkyIQ supports advertisers with database and customer intelligence services, and, according to Tester, is offering advertising research which is “better than anything seen before”.
Sky’s counterparts around the world may be curious how the company is managing data privacy issues, which can be notoriously stringent in many countries. Sky contacted its customers earlier in 2011 seeking permission to collect anonymous customer data, and claims that “very few” of its customer households did not give their consent. There seems to be a lesson that if data collection is presented as offering clear benefits, many customers do not see it as a problem.
In response to my question about social networking, which Tester had not mentioned during his presentation, he admitted that Sky is seeing a “huge impact on viewing behaviour” from social networking apps and services. I did sense a slightly defensive stance, since Tester was quick to reassure us that Sky “did not want to get left behind” and was developing its own social networking tools. It sounded as though that was a little bit more than Sky’s corporate communications team wanted to be publicised, so we can assume significant announcements in this space over the coming months.
The “battle” was certainly raging during my own panel at the end of day two. Decipher’s Nigel Walley stood up for broadcasters “vigorously”, let’s say, in the face of questioning about the supposed threat from Google, Facebook et al. I just hope Videonet, the conference organisers, have invested in a bleep machine before they edit the videos for online availability.
The bottom line, as GroupM’s Simon Thomas noted, is that advertising expenditure as a whole can not be expected to grow very much over the coming years. While there is a great deal of advertising experimentation, advertisers, like every business in tough economic times, have to quantify ROI before investing in new solutions. “If we can’t measure it, we don’t get paid by the advertiser.” And as ITV’s Eric Guillaume admitted, broadcasters are “really bad” at understanding customer data. As we’ve seen, that is a huge contrast to what’s going on at Sky, Virgin and the TV platforms in general, and explains why broadcasters have a great deal of catching up to do if they are to thrive in the new interactive television era.