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If you want millennial TV viewers, it’s interact or bust


Zane is CEO and cofounder of Watchwith.

It’s pretty much taken as gospel these days that millennials are cord-cutters, eager to abandon television as we know it — torch broadcast and cable business models along the way.

The reality, though, is a lot more nuanced. Yes, millennials are more likely to opt out of subscriptions to traditional cable-TV bundles. But they’re cord-cutting in only the most narrow sense—substituting one delivery system (linear TV) for another (on-demand streaming) and one type of hardware (cable-fed TVs) for others (mobile devices, and TVs and PCs rigged with over-the-top solutions).
They’re still watching TV shows — lots of TV shows — and consuming plenty of programming generated by the “traditional” TV industry. They’re just doing it on their own terms.

At Watchwith, our team of entertainment, technology, and advertising experts have been studying video consumption patterns since 2012. We’re particularly interested in understanding the psychology of what works and what doesn’t for the new generation of TV viewers, particularly when it comes to advertising messages. That said, here are three broad findings we’ve found to be true…

Mobile pre-roll feels like a personal violation for millennials

All of us tend to be deeply connected to and dependent on our mobile devices, but for digital-native millennials, omnipresent smartphones are almost like an extension of their bodies — and of their personalities. That’s why pre-roll and mid-roll advertising that might be acceptable (or at least tolerable) in a desktop setting becomes absolutely rage-inducing on mobile.

We’ve heard again and again from millennial consumers about their incredible feeling of frustration while watching pre-roll on a phone. There’s a profound mismatch between the pre-roll experience and a personal device like a smartphone. Pre-roll advertising in a desktop browser tab comes off as interruptive, but the same pre-roll on mobile feels domineering, like viewers have been temporarily deprived of the sense of control they take for granted when using their beloved devices.
According to a study just released by eMarketer, “young adults ages 18 to 29 are more likely to own a mobile phone or smartphone than a desktop or laptop, pointing to how mobile is becoming an all-purpose device that users are increasingly relying on.” But in a phenomenon that MaryLeigh Bliss of youth-market research firm Ypulse calls “ad A.D.D.,” millennials are turning a blind eye to traditional ads on their favorite platform. According to Ypulse research, says Bliss, “when we ask young consumers which type of advertising they usually ignore or avoid, 62 percent say online ads, like banner and video ads, and 68 percent say mobile in-app ads. In other words, online marketing — you’re doing it wrong. It’s not enough to be where they are. You have to be where they are, and match your message to their behavior.”

‘Interactive TV’ is entirely intuitive on mobile for millennials

Many digital-native millennials grew up, or at least came of age, thinking of media consumption as a tactile experience. It’s entirely natural — indeed, second nature — for them to feel their way through media on mobile devices. And that’s even more true for post-millennials, aka Generation Z; witness the various videos on YouTube like “Baby Works iPad Perfectly,” and “9 Month Old Baby Using iPad.”

All those years of people fumbling with remotes to navigate through cable guides and various iterations of “interactive TV” have given way to being able to touch, tap and swipe — in the process instantly controlling their content-consumption destiny. That’s part of what’s behind the explosive growth of millennial-favorite streaming-gaming platform Twitch, which Amazon acquired last year for $970 million as well as prioritizes real-time interaction on its mobile apps.

The very culture surrounding streaming video itself on both mobile and desktop engenders seamless interaction. Consider the billions of shares, likes/dislikes, and channel subscriptions in just the YouTube ecosystem alone.

Millennials are poised to interact—in context, in program

Millennials are incredibly distracted consumers of content. They’re media multitaskers. So, programming that allows them to multi-task in-program helps them satisfy their natural desire to touch, tap, and swipe their way through their content-consumption journey.

In a recent study Watchwith conducted in collaboration with Magid, we found that more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds are more likely to watch more episodes of a show if it has in-program (i.e., non-interruptive) ads. We also found that in-program ads have higher levels of unaided recall compared to traditional TV ads. The point is to let the show continue flowing, but still get the ad message across.

In other words, while millennials may be inveterate multitaskers, when they’re actually in the flow of content-consumption, they’re ready and willing to interact with brand messages on their own terms.

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