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.

Stefan Tornquist

Published 2 August, 2011 by Stefan Tornquist @ Econsultancy

Stefan is Vice President of Research (US) for Econsultancy. You can follow him @SKTornquist and connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (9)

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While there's no doubt TV is becoming less important, it still has more reach than digital in some markets. One example, a motoring-related brand I know of has dominated search (beating all the well known high street brands) for almost 5 years and yet a large section of the general public have still not heard of them. TV ads are in the pipeline, I hear.

about 7 years ago

Chris Delahunty

Chris Delahunty, Director at MMK Media

I wonder if tweaking the question would have resulted in a different outcome?

Do I HAVE to use Tv? Possibly not. But if the question was along the lines of "Is TV the most effective way of reaching the masses" then the outcome may have been different.

There's also a very good point about the emotional attachment of TV and the big events, and this also works from the advertiser's view. There is still some perception that when you run a TV campaign you have "made it" in some respects.

about 7 years ago


Jonathan Tideswell

TV advertising is not as expensive as it is perceived to be. In terms of CPT's it can often be comparable or even better value than online media. You can have a fairly decent TV campaign for around £20k including creative.

As much as the technology now exists to bypass an advert on TV there is no doubting that with the right creative a TV ad can actually be desirable to watch and a powerful recruitment tool. How many people can remember there favorite digital ad compared with their favorite TV ad?

about 7 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

As your last paragraph says it's clearly not an either/or question but the appropriate use of both together.

However, I think a key question over the years (and still now) is whether the TV itself, and its historically linear proposition, would become 'interactive' or not.

You suggest "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".

It's not clear exactly what you mean by this but my personal view has increasingly become that TV will actually remain pretty much a linear/broadcast experience (excepting time-shifted consumption like catch-up or VOD) but that it will be the 'companion devices / second screens' (phones and tablets mostly) that will add the interactivity, not the TV itself.

I pretty much buy into the model proposed by new start up Zeebox here in the UK (see http://www.nma.co.uk/3028962.article) which describes itself as "a platform that enables total synchronisation between on air and second-screen advertising".

We've tried red button TV and interactive TV and keyboards for text entry onscreen... and it just doesn't really work very well. Using a companion device to layer on the interactivity and social stuff makes much more sense to me. It allows TV to be both broadcast/passive/'one to many' as well as personalised/interactive/one-to-one at the same time. Best of both worlds... ;)

about 7 years ago


Vincent Haywood

Great article, I believe TV enhances online campaigns. I don't think it should be a priority over online media that some dinosaur agencies still do.
Barb measures about 5100 homes correct? Yet online renowned for its accountability gives you an accurate view rather than an average or assumption. Skipping of prerolls, pausing video, when did they convert, when did they bounce off. Exact measurements.
I've always seen TV buyers hanging on to a dated measurement system, if they were able to measure it like online was, they would be in for a surprise.

Agreed, when I run an online campaign I would expect some spend on TV, just to drive some numbers. But thats just it, TV is stepping down. As it should. Its not 1995 anymore.

about 7 years ago


Tess Alps

Hello. I posted a long comment yesterday which did appear briefly but is now gone. Don't think I just previewed it. Is there any way of retrieving it? Really don't want to have to redo if at all possible... Thanks.

about 7 years ago

Chris Delahunty

Chris Delahunty, Director at MMK Media

For the question of TV becoming more interactive...

Has this not already happened, but in a very organic way, rather than the introduction of a new piece of technology?

The use of Twitter within TV programming, searching for relevant info online, related videos, blogging to support programming has happened despite what TV companies and advertisers have done.

The majority of this, however, has happened in programming. Maybe it is time for agencies to take a leaf out of the book of media companies and learn how to integrate content across channels in order to make the biggest impact.

about 7 years ago



despite of technology.

tradition television box
i think everyhouse has television set watching drama, watching movie and so on. i use an television for almost 20 years. the television aspect excellent i doesn't need to send for servicing on electeical faulty less complaint. compliment connection to me.

about 7 years ago


Tom Cunniff

This is interesting. But, businesspeople move in herds: no one wants to risk having an opinion that's outside the norm.

when given a choice of whether to believe what people say or what they do, my advice is always "follow the money".

Opinions say one thing about digital scale. Investments tell a different story.

almost 7 years ago

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