We are now officially spending more time using digital devices than watching TV, a statistic that has advertisers groaning, “Et tu, Facebook?!” But smart marketers are looking toward the proliferation of mobile apps as an opportunity to engage consumers in a new way as they seek to create a harmonious union between TV-watching and online interaction.
That’s where branded sync apps come in. For the past few years, marketers have been experimenting with so-called “second-screen apps” that are designed to keep viewers tapped into TV programming (and ads, obviously) through the use of mobile-friendly, show-synched apps. Of course, the trick is to engage consumers within the app while still exposing them to advertising messages, a concept that’s proving incredibly difficult to nail down. The success of an app can create an ironic problem, making fans perhaps too engaged for advertisers—similar to how the HBOGo app keeps attracting zillions of streaming viewers at a time only to fry its own servers, thereby releasing a torrent of Original Series-themed anger into the Twitterverse.
A recent in-depth study of branded app usage for more than 100 TV viewers measuring over 250 million biometric data points—everything from “emotional engagement” to eye movement—yielded a mixed bag of results. Branded apps, created by networks to air in tandem with the show, did create 26% more engagement than no app did, but that engagement came at a cost. The more emotionally immersed viewers became in the show, the less they engaged with the app. Short of producing entirely ad-centric programs (“Game of Thrones: The La-Z-Boy Challenge”), where does that leave advertisers?
In addition to network-hosted solutions like the Emmy®-winning Nickelodeon app and The CW’s meme-generating “Vampire Diaries” app, advertisers can also pay-to-play using “Incentivize apps” that offer points and rewards to viewers who participate in show-paralleled quizzes, polls, and trivia contests. The trade-off here? Incentivize apps work a little too well, seriously pulling engagement away from the on-TV ads themselves. It’s truly a conundrum only Sherlock Holmes could solve.
AMC seems to be leading the charge when it comes to effective, focused show-specific apps. Their “Sync Story” app, currently in use on “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad”, has garnered plenty of attention on Twitter (#syncstory) for providing interesting historical tidbits, actor bios, and in-show trivia that even the most dedicated fans deem entertaining. AMC says that over the course of a show’s season, north of one million people use their Sync Story app.
Do networks now essentially need to produce two shows, one online and one offline, to capture our ever-dwindling attention spans? And the push and pull of viewers from TV to second screen . . . can advertisers ever win at that game, or are these apps just chipping away at an already-fragmented target audience? Odds are that brands will probably keep tinkering and testing this new medium until the release of the “third screen”: a tiny LCD projection beamed directly at our corneas.