The streaming revolution: should marketers be worried about ad-free streaming?

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The New York Times recently observed that Hollywood experiences a seismic shift every three decades or so. In the 1920s it was the shift from silent films to ones with sound, while in the 1950s it was the rise of broadcast television and the 1980s saw the cable boom.

As we draw to the end of the 2010s, a new seismic shift is rapidly increasing its pace. The streaming revolution is upon us, and the big three of the entertainment industry – Disney, Warner Media and NBC Universal – have either recently launched their streaming services, or will do soon. On the whole this is great news for consumers, particularly wealthier ones, who have a huge amount of high-quality content and their fingertips, although it comes at a cost, of course. It is, however, less welcome for the traditional broadcasters and cable channels, who are seeing their viewer numbers decrease at an alarming rate. In the US there was a 5.4% decrease in cable subscribers in Q2 of this year.

TV has for at least 70 years been at the heart of the advertising strategies of advertisers big and small around the world: where does this latest shift leave them? And should they be worried?

Better content, more choice, no ads

The modern consumer has more choice and control than at any other time in history, and they are more connected than ever: 50% of the US and UK populations have a connected TV, and that figure is expected to continue growing. These consumers are increasingly choosing to consume video content from the new streaming services over the more traditional broadcast channels. Why? There are two key reasons: the quality of the content available, and the fact that the majority of them are ad-free, so they can watch their favourite shows without interruption. A huge 60% of adults in the US were subscribed to a streaming service in 2019, while in 2018 Netflix use alone surpassed cable and satellite TV for the first time. With the glut of new streaming services – mostly ad-free – launching at the end of this year and the beginning of next, those figures will only increase.

If it affects consumers, it affects advertisers

As consumers leave traditional TV in their droves, advertisers are having to work out rapidly what it all means for them. Of course, if consumers are flocking to ad-free services, that makes reaching them much more difficult. This is particularly the case for wealthier consumers – a key target audience thanks to their buying power – who are more able to pay to rid their viewing experience of ads. The high-quality ad spots that do continue to reach large numbers of consumers – think live sport and of-the-moment experiences such as the Oscars – will increase in cost dramatically. Indeed, many TV media owners will be rethinking their inventory strategy and may well have fewer, higher impact ad spots for which advertisers pay a premium. This is also more likely to be acceptable for viewers as it will likely mean shorter ad spots with higher quality advertising.

Advertisers must to an extent accept some of the responsibility for the migration to the ad-free services. Consumers are fleeing ads because they are all too often repetitive, irrelevant and uninteresting. If advertisers can transform their strategies and the quality of their advertising and targeting, consumers will be far more forgiving of an interruption of the programme they are watching.

Technology will help: many traditional TV broadcasters are embracing technology in order to allow them to shift to programmatic, highly targeted buying, for example Sky’s AdSmart addressable offering which has rolled out across multiple markets over recent months. This will help increase relevance but, as we explore in this article, it’s not necessarily the answer for brands seeking mass reach – TV’s traditional USP.

It all comes down to targeting

Amid all the talk about the streaming revolution, there are many saying that it’s not over for TV. There are undoubtedly still many people watching scheduled TV; particularly for non-US audiences, local broadcasters have expertise in creating culturally and contextually relevant content that the mainly American streaming services aren’t yet doing. There is also the paradox of choice – with endless options available to them on the streaming services, there is evidence that many feel overwhelmed and gravitate back to traditional TV when they don’t know what to watch. And of course live events such as sporting fixtures will always attract viewers – although whether they remain on traditional broadcast TV remains to be seen.

However, whether people are still watching scheduled TV or not misses the point. Effective advertising is all about targeting, and if a large proportion of your target audience is absent from a channel, targeting becomes far more complex. This is especially true as the future of the cookie looks increasingly uncertain: indeed, Google may follow the lead of other browsers and further restrict the use of third-party cookies on Chrome.

The answer for marketers is, of course, to rethink, to innovate. Where do the new opportunities lie? Are there other channels and strategies that will deliver on your objectives, or will you need to increase your TV budget to secure those high-impact, high-quality spots? Creating, implementing and learning from a great media strategy will become ever more crucial as marketers strive to understand what works, and why.

Image: Shutterstock

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