We recently asked marketers whether TV was still necessary for reaching the masses. They disagreed with that idea by a large margin…but are they right? How do digital and TV match up when scale is the number one variable?

Do you still need television to reach the masses? Most marketers
don’t think so.

In one of the surveys that powered the Quarterly Digital
Briefing
from Econsultancy and Adobe, we wanted to compare the industry’s conventional
wisdom with reality. By far the most controversial statement pitted digital
against television: “if you want to reach the masses, you still have to use
television”. In the chart below, we see that marketers disagreed with this by a ratio of better than 2 to 1 (52% to 23%), with the remaining 25%
staying neutral.

Is the majority opinion on target? As usual, the answer isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no”.

First let’s train our sites on television. It’s a advertising medium
under attack by internal and external forces:

  • Every day it gets easier to block commercials or
    simply access television content in commercial-free formats. A recent study
    indicated that over 60% of viewers had time-shifted some of their programming in one way
    or another.
  • Competition with digital media has led to
    somewhat less time spent with television, but a more profound change is in the quality of that time. Studies show that viewing is no longer an activity unto itself but one shared with searching the internet, playing games, posting FB updates, etc.
  • Time shifting doesn’t just reduce the number of
    ads watched
    . It also diminishes the impact of all ads, but especially those
    that reference an event, such as a holiday or sale.
  • TV is expensive and getting more so, even as its
    effectiveness wanes. TV pricing for 2011 is predicted to grow at better than
    12% – a bit faster than paid search marketing for example, and 3pts better than
    all ad growth at 9.2%.
  • Proliferation of channels has increased
    competition from within the medium, with niche content (cue The Who’s “Boris the Spider” for the opening
    of CSI: Vladivostok) poaching viewers from the top of the market. The upside is
    that cheaper TV ad slots are available to the mid-market, but it’s at the cost
    of the high end, where aggregating large audiences is the goal.

Most observers would agree that television is a flawed
medium for advertising, but when it comes to aggregating large audiences, is
the internet the answer? It has its own issues:

  • Look at the Kafkaesque world of
    data-enhanced ad technologies
    and you’ll find a lot of ways to make audiences smaller. They may be highly
    relevant, but the goal for mass market campaigns is quantity first, targeting
    second (or further down the list). The goal of putting the right ad in front of
    the right person at the right time may be closer than ever, but that’s not the
    kind of marketing that moves millions of units by next Friday.
  • You can personally name most of
    the wildly successful online branding campaigns (you’re doing it now in your
    head… the great Unilever stuff… Old Spice guy… now you’re going way back to Subservient
    Chicken…). Most massive online phenomena are viral or have a viral component.
    We’ve learned a lot about how to “prime the pump” for viral success, but that
    means leveraging other channels. Of those, the heavy hitter is television.
  • The emotional component of
    advertising is difficult to quantify, but most would acknowledge that the
    internet lags behind television for sheer visual power. Even the most modest
    television screen offers a viewing experience that’s only matched online by the
    best monitors coupled with rarified speed and unusually good content.
    Meanwhile, there’s nothing modest about the large format, high-definition
    televisions that are becoming the norm.
  • The context for online ads can be
    very exact, but it rarely has the same potential for emotional impact as a
    television event. Premiere League matches, NFL games, royal weddings and talent
    shows can make a brand part of a larger experience. Under the right
    circumstances, digital could do the same, but rarely does.

Comparing weaknesses, neither old nor new media offers an
optimal solution. The digital landscape seems inhospitable to the goal of
aggregating people as it breaks into smaller and smaller digital islands that
suit ever more specific tastes. Meanwhile, television is seen as a dinosaur
that’s vaguely aware of the meteor in the sky, but doesn’t have a clue what to
do about it. But for now, if the goal is pure, unadulterated reach, the
dinosaur still rules.

The medium doesn’t just access huge numbers of people; it
affects them. Television
advertising is the only way to generate actions and attention for a brand in a
definable time period across almost any scale that’s required. If the job is to move inventory at a
national or international level, there’s still no tool that’s as predictably
effective as TV.

Of course, things are changing quickly. The reach of digital campaigns is
growing as brands and their agencies get better at creating digital content and
using the social internet (in combination with other tactics) to distribute it.
Slowly, the creativity gap between traditional and digital ads is narrowing, though the peaks of the former and the troughs of the latter are still far
apart. It’s also a bit of apples and oranges, as the best online marketing often relies on messaging that’s swaddled in strong content, rather than ads in the classic sense.

Soon, perhaps, the question won’t be binary. The internet is
still evolving rapidly, and in its own way, so is television. The smart
money says they start growing together. The best place to find audiences in 2020 will likely be a
form of internet enabled television that’s evocative and interactive, with the
social and data-driven elements that we’ve come to expect as advertisers and
consumers.