What Can TV Learn from Search?

A few television and cable companies have taken a page from the online marketing playbook lately. Comcast acquired social networking site Plaxo last month to integrate social network-like features that let viewers share programming in a viral way. Meanwhile, Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) is looming on the horizon with promise of interactivity and the long tail-like content capacity.

The latest example of television leering jealously towards the Internet came with the recent announcement that Turner Entertainment Networks will index content within television shows in order to serve contextually relevant ads during commercial breaks.

In a recent presentation, Linda Yaccarino, Turner executive VP of sales and marketing, showed a scene from the movie “Anchorman” in which Will Ferrell pontificates on love. A spot for online dating service eHarmony followed in the subsequent commercial break.

While this is an interesting twist on broadcast ad delivery, it unfortunately misses the point. Contextual ad placement can be effective in search where a query can serve as a proxy for user intent. Television ads, on the other hand, are much more passive. When I sit down to watch a particular movie, it doesn’t mean I’m interested in a specific product (which may or may not have any connections to the movie’s overall theme) mentioned halfway through that movie.

In order for this to work, contextualization has to take a step back to the point at which the user made a decision that can be used to identify intent. In other words, watching “Anchorman” doesn’t say anything about my interest in dating services, but rather my interest in comedy, Will Ferrell, or Christina Applegate (though that last one doesn’t take much to assume).

Another Turner example: A scene in the movie “Hitch,” in which Will Smith suffers an allergic reaction to something he ate, could be followed by a spot for Walgreens, or the allergy medication Zyrtec. Again, watching “Hitch” shouldn’t make me a target for allergy medicine. Here’s where the online dating ad from the previous example should be applied. Dating is a primary theme in “Hitch” — allergies are not.

By the time the scene about allergic reactions comes up, I’m many steps past having made any decision that would make me more or less likely to want Zyrtec. In fact, watching Hitch and having allergies have zero connection (unless maybe you’re allergic to bad movies).

Contextualization Out of Context

Original intent aside, it could be true that certain items within a movie or TV show can pique an interest in a product, which is then capitalized on during the next commercial break. But this is a minimal effect compared to pull-based targeting, where contextual ads can really shine.

For example, consider contextually placed text ads in Google SERPs versus Gmail (or the AdSense publisher network for that matter). Though contextual advertising works well in Google search results, it hasn’t proved as effective in Gmail where text ads are served based on keywords that show up in mail messages.

In search, I’ve raised my hand with an interest in something specific. But in e-mail, my mention of an intoxicated friend over the weekend who acted like a clown shouldn’t make me an effective target for text ads about clown college (true story). Though it’s contextual advertising, it’s way out of context.

Effectiveness aside, on television, this could also present a minefield of inappropriate contextual matches, when done on an automated basis. Seeing an ad for United Airlines after the crash scene(s) in “Lost” probably isn’t what you want.

Albeit, low volume/high margin television advertising makes this easier to police than the billions of long tail contextual ads served online. But for the same reason, when a mistake is made, a whole lot more people get to see it.

Moving in the Right Direction

If television networks are to take a page from the Internet, they should take the entire page. In other words it’s not just effective placement, but direct response capability that has made search marketing shine. For contextual ads to work on television, networks have to think outside of the :30 spot.

Product placements could be one way this plays out when IPTV arrives in full force. This will come with the IP-based architecture that will let users “telescope” in to certain products to find out more or even buy them (think cooking shows or home improvement).

In these cases, contextual plays well to an IP-based interactive medium. Contextualizing ads during commercial breaks, on the other hand, prematurely imposes a pull-based delivery scheme on a push-based system. It’s a step in the right direction, but is a mash-up that falls somewhere in between two opposite ends of a spectrum that are each effective in isolation.

It’s good that TV execs are thinking differently, but it will take a few tries — and a few dollars — before they get it right.

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