How Facebook is vying for TV ad money

Facebook just announced something that seems like a handy little way for people to send status updates more quickly, but it's a Trojan horse to steal ad money from the big TV networks. It's taken Shazam-like "sonic fingerprinting" to allow users to tag status updates with the shows they are watching or background music they are listening to by merely having Facebook running in the background.

This might seem like a nice add-on feature, but it's a declaration of war on TV ads. And it's the first ad opportunity that's not a compromise, but rather an optimization that is bridging the online and offline worlds together.

Since the dawn of the digital age, advertisers have had increasingly hard decisions to make -- decisions fraught with compromises in their advertising media budget. Regardless of the advances in technology, marketers could have it all. And there has remained a big divide between the digital and more traditional worlds, all defined by the required trade-offs inherent in each paradigm.

Broadly speaking, we had the old world creative options like TV and print filled with rich storytelling media that got noticed, built a connection with people, and gave consumers sought-after entertainment. But these consumers were hard to effectively target, measure, and drive to action.

Newer advertising options -- mobile ads, banners, pre-roll, etc. -- face the opposite challenges: While it's easy to target the right person and offer them meaningful ways to interact, getting even noticed (let alone getting clicks) has remained a huge, ever-worsening problem. This lack of interaction -- the problem with being noticed -- continues to keep most digital media cheap.

But fashion and excitement have moved away from TV ads. The myth that TV advertising is dead has propagated, and the industry has assumed (incorrectly) that a plethora of TV ads are skipped. In reality, only 8 percent of ads are skipped, compared with 94 percent of pre-roll ads. More than any other time in history, people want digital advertising to work and to take up the slack. This has led to renewed focus on how to reach people within the TV context.

When AT&T found that 88 percent of TV viewers used their mobile phones when watching TV -- especially during ad breaks -- it seemed the solution was obvious: Let's find a way to channel that attention. And thus technology companies and media owners, desperately keen to offer this key moment of attention, began to explore TV shows that use a second screen to embellish viewing. The likes of Umami, GetGlue (now tvtag), and Zeebox became companion apps to enable check-ins, conversations, and aid discovery in real time.  

Takeoff has been slow for companion apps. Studies have shown that people typically tend to use their second screens to email, check Facebook, or send tweets or texts.

Many months ago I worked with a small group of people to ideate around how the apps that people used could incorporate contextual data to synchronize with TV viewing. We sold many clients on a variety of options, including "anti-advertising" (allowing competitors to the ads that were being shown on TV to buy media) and holistic advertising (where both TV and mobile would showcase complimentary ads). We tried all options including the idea of a Shazam feed, but with such low install rates, it seemed a dead idea.

So now with Facebook announcing a near identical audio fingerprinting technology to aid status updates, it seems like we've bridged the gap between the digital and the traditional world.

Like many Facebook ideas, it's a Trojan horse, billed as a consumer service to aid status updates. But Facebook's clear goal is to take money from TV. This could be huge.

Tom Goodwin is director at Tomorrow.

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