Ever since the television became a household staple in the late 1950s, mass media consumption has been tethered to predictable scheduling. The concept of “prime time” -- a regularly occurring block of time, usually between 8 and 11 p.m, when TV shows are expected to draw the highest number of viewers -- has been around for decades. If you’ve ever tuned into 60 Minutes, The Simpsons, Friends or NBC Sunday Night Football, you’ve helped build an audience of millions for a single broadcast -- and a gold mine for advertisers.
The power of prime time advertising is still going strong, but the rise of online media brings a new twist. TV show engagement is no longer restricted to air time, as online streaming services have introduced an alternate way to consume content outside of the established prime time window. Those who do still watch live TV might take to the Internet before the show for a recap of the previous episode or tweet their shock at a cliffhanger ending. As a result, prime time is stretching, across both time and media platforms. With consumers actively choosing to engage online, it also means that the number of idle viewers is reduced.
As online media continues to expand prime time, brands and advertisers must act accordingly. This means shifting ad dollars away from TV to digital media, where prime time exists even outside of “prime time.” But, online advertising is a far cry from the more formulaic TV advertising for which ads are placed during shows that draw specific audience demographics and interests, like a commercial for Beats headphones during NBC’s The Voice. When it comes to the seemingly endless online arena, where do you even begin?
It starts with a basic understanding of consumer interests. These aren’t stagnant -- they’re dynamic and ever-changing. What is the target demographic talking about right now? Those trends may only be tangential to the audience’s core, known interests, but if it’s where the eyeballs are today, then it’s where the ads must appear.
Those trends could be anything from a new song or viral video to a breaking news story. They could be small and fleeting -- a tweet that attracts heavy engagement one morning -- or all-consuming, like an awards show or a championship sporting match. In fact, those larger trends are often made up of dozens of smaller, related trends. Those “micro-events” might be found on social media, within in news articles, recap posts, YouTube comments -- you name it -- and give advertisers a unique opportunity to zero in on key audiences that may not have actually tuned into the show during air time.
By tracking these trends and micro-events – by the day, the hour, even the minute – advertisers can see, in real-time, the topics that are important to their key audiences. As a result, ad targeting becomes more relevant, accurate and even eye-opening, uncovering new audiences that hadn’t been considered before by monitoring who else is following the same trends as the core target audience.
Real-time in the big time
The Oscars and the Super Bowl are two of the best examples of TV prime time, drawing the attention of more than 40 million and 100 million viewers respectively. These events are, without dramatization, an advertiser’s dream. But, with a price tag of nearly $2 million for a 30-second spot during the Oscars (or double that for the Super Bowl), living that dream is simply not feasible for most brands.
Certainly, brands have found alternative ways to advertise around these events in real-time, and some have been wildly successful. Take, for instance, Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” tweet during the Super Bowl power outage in 2013, or Ellen Degeneres’ famous Oscar “selfie,” earlier this year, taken by the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
These became two of the most famous tweets of all time, and, while Oreo and Samsung likely reaped significant benefits as a result, their strategies still remained within the time constraints of the events themselves. With trend-based targeting, those brands could have continued their message for weeks longer, still hitting an audience just as large as the TV broadcast, and probably more relevant. If they wanted to replicate those results this year, what would those trends have been?
Top trends of 2014
Super Bowl and Oscar fans in 2014 were following trends that ranged across technology, sports, gaming and entertainment topics -some of which no one could have guessed.
The top Super Bowl trends, for instance, included Seattle wide receiver Percy Harvin becoming activated for the game after sitting out most of the season. This might have been predictable, but another top trend -- Fergie teasing a potential playdate between her son Axl and baby North West -- definitely was not. Other unpredictable Super Bowl trends included Apple’s move to block BitCoin apps, and Sean Penn’s Beatles tribute.
The Oscars saw a similar scenario, with some predictable top trends like Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress. Others were surprises for viewers, like Jimmy Fallon’s "Let it Go" duet with Idina Menzel and rising Playstation 4 sales.
By placing their ads next to online conversations about these trends, brands of all sizes and sectors saw ad performance that was just as good (if not better) than ads aired during the events’ broadcasts -- and with significant savings to boot.
Prime time -- all the time
Prime time, in the traditional sense, has a natural allure, signifying massive audiences and huge ad performance potential. But, brands don’t necessarily have to pursue the most obvious (not to mention expensive) advertising opportunities in order to be competitive. Even if they do have the means to secure a valuable spot between the golden broadcast hours of 8 and 11 p.m., brands are missing out on significant opportunities to reach audiences if they don’t take a more holistic approach to advertising -- one that encompasses online media, and all the conversations that go along with it.