The first truly interactive TV advertisement appeared on the screens of the UK's homes more than three years ago. Chicken Tonight offered viewers willing to "push the red button" money-off coupons for the tasty chicken treat in exchange for a couple of precious minutes of their time.
Opinion was divided over both the suitability and success of the campaign (one assumes the client and agency were both "delighted"), but it serves to remind us how far the digital and interactive market has moved on in a comparatively short space of time.
The past two years in the marketplace have been turbulent, to say the least. The closure of ITV Digital after months of "monkeying" around meant that Sky overtook Carlton and Granada as the main digital platform provider. The phoenix from the ITV Digital ashes - Freeview - has signalled its arrival in the marketplace strongly, selling half a million set-top boxes in the first six months.
Set against a backdrop of falling TV revenues and audience fragmentation, the interactive marketplace seems to be in fine health. More viewers are claiming to be interacting with their television and more broadcasters are looking to interactive TV to reinvigorate their revenue streams.
The bad taste left in the mouth by the collapse of ITV Digital has been sweetened by Sky and Channel 4, which have proved that enhanced TV can be profitable.The number of interactive campaigns booked on the digital satellite platform (ie Sky) reached 200 in the autumn of 2002, representing an increase of 290% year on year (Zip TV).
ITV has already experimented this year with interactive versions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (no coughing from the back please!) and the Brit Awards. Viewers were invited to play along at home and vote for their favourite record or artist respectively for the chance to win cash or prizes.
Plans are now afoot at the Network Centre for interactive ads in the second half of 2003. The prospect of interactive advertising alongside some of the country's favourite programmes is certain to be an enticing proposition for clients and agencies alike, with record levels of interactivity and, therefore, response, a distinct possibility.
Telewest is predicted to begin offering interactive advertising in the second half of 2003 via the digital cable platform.
The greatest growth in the digital marketplace will be through Freeview. Low entry costs, combined with none of the hassle some potential customers associate with subscription providers, are part of the reason it will drive expansion of the digital marketplace. Viewers are interacting at levels never before seen, most encouragingly among the "cash rich and time poor"; those aged 25 to 34 and classified as AB are most likely to interact with their TV (Forrester Research).
The advent of interactive program formats such as Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity... have increased the likelihood of viewers interacting. Traditional TV is lean-back; interactive TV, lean-forward.
But where do the clients sit in all of this? After all, it is their marketing budgets that are potentially earmarked to swell the coffers of ITV, BSkyB et al in the future. Encouragingly, according to Forrester Research, three quarters of advertisers who have used interactive claim they would do so again; at face value, testing has produced positive results.
The first lesson to learn from all of this for media agencies is "educate, educate, educate"! A modicum of embarrassment may lead some clients to claim they have a sound understanding of the digital and interactive arenas, but what constitutes understanding is up for discussion.
A criticism levelled by clients and agencies alike at the iTV industry is a real lack of clear, concise and practicable campaign information. Clients tell us that they are keen to keep abreast of the latest developments and success stories. Zip TV's iTV - Coming of Age study cited updates on technology, case studies, advertising opportunities and, most importantly, rules for best practice when pre-planning were all central to increasing clients' understanding of what, for many, is currently mysterious and confusing.
Changing clients' perception of the medium is also integral to increasing its consideration on media plans. iTV - Coming of Age counted the opportunity to increase sales as the single most important perceived role for interactive TV (26% of all respondents). Other criteria, such as targeting niche audiences and increasing brand awareness were deemed far less important - 17% and 8% respectively.
The focus is on the industry to develop models which are simple, accountable and which, ultimately, mean campaigns can be directly linked to sales uplift. A precedent for this already exists in the "analogue" TV marketplace. Any increase in sales of FMCG and household goods can be tracked using the TVSpan system; bar codes are scanned at supermarkets and other retailers and the sales data captured accordingly. The opportunity for advertisers to link their interactive campaigns with a tangible return on investment would be a very attractive proposition indeed.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is the need for the interactive arena to educate and reassure clients of the flexibility and accountability of the medium; clients in turn need to reassess the criteria on which they judge a media campaign successful.
The interactive market is on the cusp of very exciting times. The number and range of campaigns has increased dramatically over the past two years and the number of clients booking repeat campaigns is a true endorsement of what the medium can offer.
Freeview, most notably, will continue to drive the penetration of digital forward
Now, where did I put that jar of Chicken Tonight?
A significant percentage of all digital viewers would never interact with an advert through their TV, according to a new study.
Research by BMRB found that 55% of Sky digital viewers had ever seen an interactive ad. But, of those, only 26% claimed to have ever interacted with it.
Part of the reason for this reluctance to interact with ads could be a lack of understanding from consumers. Of those surveyed, 60% said they did not know enough about what interactive TV can offer. BMRB suggests that a degree of educating is required before the medium can truly take off.
The research shows that 46% of viewers find interactive services too slow and 31% added that it often failed to work at all.
However, the potential for advertisers is there; 62% agreed that interactive advertising is a convenient way to get information about a product or service.
And, encouragingly for the fledgling medium, half of all digital viewers think that companies that use interactive are more innovative than their competitors and 58% think it stands out more than traditional TV ads.
The survey of 955 digital viewers revealed that four out of five Sky digital viewers had ever pressed the interactive button on their remote control, as had about two-thirds of cable viewers. Those most likely
to have pressed the red button are the under-35s (85% have) but only half of those aged over 65 have done so.