A view from Sue Unerman

Two ways to deal with the four-minute rule

The nation is hooked on watching people watch TV.

Once you start watching Gogglebox, it’s hard to stop. Do we even know how we feel about The X Factor, Last Night Of The Proms and This Is England until we’ve heard from Sandy and Sandra, June and Leon, and the inimitable and wise-beyond-her-years Scarlett Moffatt?

The least authentic thing about the programme is the full concentration every Gogglebox cast member pays to what is going on. They are glued to the action on their TVs. They never pick up a second screen.

Unlike the rest of the nation.

TV is powerful – powerful for branding, powerful for storytelling, powerful for selling stuff. Commercial TV has been effective at selling product for 60 years. It has not got any less powerful as far as advertising effectiveness is concerned.

But it is no longer (if it ever was after the 50s) the single focus of most people’s attention most of the time.

YuMe research reveals a four-minute window for sole attention to TV among multi-screen viewers: four minutes when viewers pay all their attention to the main screen. Then that’s it. After that, attention to TV drops as people turn to other devices. TV is the most used device still in multi-screen environments; it just doesn’t necessarily receive most of the attention. And TouchPoints 5 shows that half of the UK population picks up their mobile device while watching TV.

So should we change our approach to TV in this new normal?

TV is fuel to lots of conversations, and great advertising benefits from this. If you’re worried that multi-screening stops ad recall, don’t be. Thinkbox studies show that it absolutely does not.

Here are two techniques that any planner can use to drive TV effectiveness further.

First, by influencing creative strategy. Often, the ambition of an ad campaign is to make the advertising as talked about as the programmes either by being emotionally epic or by shouting rather loudly. We must now consider whether the focus should in fact be to create some kind of memorability while not being the main focus of attention.

Jingles and repeated slogans/memes would help. Especially if it is true that our attention spans are shrinking. Microsoft has told us that we have lost four seconds of focus since 2000, when we could focus for a whole 12 seconds (now it’s just eight). Does this mean we should constantly change the messages? The solution might be the very opposite – ie. heavy repetition of the same meme rather than constantly refreshing it.

The second way is by harnessing mobile devices to complement the big screen – using content and ads to reinforce the TV message and potentially complete the sales journey immediately.

MediaCom research showed that multitasking while watching TV was always highly prevalent, long before the days when everyone sitting in front of the big screen had another screen or two to hand. Back at the turn of the century, breakthrough ethnographic research came up with a multitude of other behaviours that played out in front of the telly, ranging from reading the newspaper to beauty treatments. Back then, all we could do was quantify them by programme type to pick the best spots. Now, we know so much more about what everyone is doing. We can build a 360-degree, real-time view of TV viewers and what they are up to. With this perspective, we can design integrated online and offline screen campaigns that improve advertising effectiveness for the four-minute window and beyond.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom