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Measurement key to monetizing mobile video

Measuring mobile video audiences and associated ad engagement is one of the greatest challenges facing the pay TV industry, with big rewards for getting it right. Mobile video has surged over the last year, with phones and tablets accounting for 46 per cent of all online viewing globally during Q4 2016, up from 34 per cent a year earlier, according to video technology vendor Ooyala. Ad spending is moving with the eyeballs and in the UK for example more of it will be on mobile than mainstream TV for the first time this year, £4.58 billion ($7 billion) against £4.18 billion ($6.39 billion), according to eMarketer.

While some pay TV operators may have reasonable visibility over viewing on desktops, mobile devices raise complexity to another dimension. On desktops access to web sites and services is almost all via browsers, but on mobiles these only account for a minority of viewing. It is true that the majority of web sites are accessed from mobiles too via the browser, for obviously individual users only have room for a certain number of apps on their devices. But apps account for the great majority of time spent on mobiles and also for most traffic, because users tend to hang out in just a few places. Those places are accessed via apps rather than the browser, including the likes of Facebook, Google Maps and WeChat. However an interesting and relevant trend for operators during 2016, which has been highlighted by analyst group Forrester, is that users are increasingly turning towards aggregation apps to access the content they want.

When access is predominantly via a browser as on the desktop PC cookies can be used to track viewing activity and measure ad engagement. But cookies do not work well in the mobile world because activity is partitioned between the mobile browser and the various apps isolated from each other via sandboxing, which is a fundamental property of both the dominant mobile OSs, Android and Apple iOS. Web sites accessed within apps open via dedicated custom browsers which means that they cannot interact with persistent cookies on the device, which precludes use of proven desk top measurement tools. In the case of iOS devices, the situation is just as bad even for sites accessed via the mobile browser because Apple prohibits use of third party cookies.

There are also higher level challenges for mobile TV advertising such as defining how long people should watch an ad for it to count as having been viewed, given that attention spans are shorter on small screens. The situation is similar for the actual TV content, where the value of mobile viewing can depend on context, being particularly high when there is synergy with the big screen for example to resume watching something started earlier.

The overall challenge then is to integrate audience measurement and analytics across all screens including mobile to deliver consistent information that takes account of differences in context and engagement across the different platforms. There are now plenty of tools available for tracking activity on the mobile side, but integrating them within a coherent end to end measurement and analytics system is highly complex. Some big operators are attempting to do this in-house but increasingly even they are turning to specialist TV audience companies to enable the integration.

One example is UK based TV analytics firm Genius Digital, offering two services which can be combined or stand alone, one being Real Time Data Collection for reporting viewing data across all devices. This is based on multiscreen libraries that can be embedded into mobile or web applications to enable monitoring of video consumption, profile management, performance and quality management on JavaScript, iOS and Android devices. Secondly Genius Digital offers Multiscreen Data Service (MDS), designed to extract viewing data from apps, even those from third parties. A key benefit of this approach lies in marrying viewing information from these different apps, each of which will normally use different metrics, to provide consistent information about engagement with channels or specific programs for integration with traditional set top box return path data.

Another TV analytics company TVbeat, also UK based, has moved in a similar direction, in this case through a partnership with a dedicated TV app company Metrological. This has enabled TVbeat to meld set top data with mobile device return path and app consumption information from Metrological’s Application Platform.

Such developments ease the pain of mobile audience measurement for pay TV operators and we expect to see more that have previously relied solely on in-house development to at least consider working with one of the specialist analytics companies that are in a better position to aggregate data from many sources. With mobiles accounting for a rapidly increasing proportion of both viewing and ad budgets, operators need to embrace that with their existing actionable data analytics.

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Google TV off to a bad start

Google is undisputedly good at advertising and search. I’ve been convinced for a while now that Google & TV make sense, see this IPTV News interview from 18 months ago.

If Google had decided to enable a business model for companies from say Roku to NDS using its advertising capability linked to search, I’d be totally confident in the venture even though success might have still taken time to reach.

But by embracing the whole middleware environment with a complete solution, Google has bitten off too much to chew even for them. Large companies from Intel to Microsoft (including Apple) have all failed their initial entry into the TV market. Different reasons apply in each case; one commonality is the size and lack of agility of these companies that always want to fix the whole problem instead of concentrating on their strengths. In spite of still branding its products as betas, Google has now become such a behemoth that its legendary light-footedness has all but gone.

As Mike Elgan points out in his entertaining computerworld blog, the TV experience is mostly stuff you don’t want. The lean-forward Web experience is one of finding a needle you do want, in a haystack that you don’t. TV’s problem is more about sweeping out all the rubbish. This is where the traditional pay TV business fits in, although it is not clear whether this is cause or consequence.

Google may have some flashy (or should that read HTML5?) animations explaining what Google TV is. However, just reiterating that they’ll deliver the best of the Web and the TV together is not reason enough for this to happen.

So ...  what actually needs fixing for the Web and TV to Merge?

  • 1. reliability or stability of the set-top-boxes (or stuff inside the connected TV)
  • 2. ease of use of the user interface
  • 3. navigation within all the newly available content

Starting with the last item on this list, Google’s premise seems to be that they will be in a better position to resolve the difficult issue of content navigation. They do indeed have a unique selling point here with their search technology. But the other blocking point needs to be fixed first. I have 6 separate devices in my living room, all with the latest firmware; I can crash any of them, with sometimes just a few button presses. Android, the operating system that will power Google TV, is still pretty shaky, and that is a no go in my book. The lack of robustness of the demos at Google’s I/O event that amused many of the bloggers present, is telling in this respect.

Working up the list, despite its relative failure to date, Apple TV introduced the poster Art concept that all modern TV UI now mimic with variable success. Nobody has yet provided an adequate solution to navigating Web amounts of content from a lean-back TV viewing posture. Should Steve Jobs up the Apple TV status from its official “hobby project” to something more strategic, then whomever can fix this usability issue, second in my list, Apple can.

As for the first blocking point, Google delivered Android for the Smartphone at breakneck speed. But in so doing, confused the market with a multiplicity of unstable versions. This is almost the opposite of MacOS on the iPhone.  Apple’s closed approach furthermore ensures both a seamless user experience and a certain level of quality. Google’s open approach can open up a Pandora’s box of faulty or incompatible apps. For robustness in the TV space one would more naturally look to the NDS’s or the OpenTV’s of the world to fix this issue.

If I were Eric Schmidt, I’d put Android for TV back into the R&D labs for another couple of years. Then choose a partner, or to be more true to their philosophy, publish open API’s for anyone to monetise OTT content through an ad system designed for hybrid TV. Going for gold during a rush, the way Google is now doing is risky business and they may well fail. If they just sold the shovels, Google would be sure to succeed and they could always buy back into the whole TV experience when the dust settles.

Combining the Web with TV, which is the Google TV bottom line, has been tried more times than any industry expert can count.

If it finally succeeds because big HD screens let you read text in the living room and devices let you interact with cloud based services, maybe with voice control or gesture based interfaces, then surely it’s the set makers that stand to win. I don’t see how current the Google-Sony-Logitec alliance could withstand the strains of success.

If the glue that finally sticks the Web and TV together turns out to be a reshaped entertainment and media ecosystems, with OTT becoming the norm and content flowing directly to TV’s through bit-pipes, then we would see a fragmentation of the content industry. Google could then dominate this space just like it does the Internet - thanks to its search/advertising model. However, the advent of file sharing and the MP3 saga have woken the sleepy content industry.  I don’t believe they will let Google reach such prominence here. Even if I’m wrong and they do, what revenues does Google derive from MP3 file sharing, legal or otherwise?

Quality live TV & film are still associated with subscription services. During the advent of the Internet over the last decade, the Pay TV industry has only gotten stronger with rising numbers of subscribers. TiVO tried to innovate a new model but has seen its active subscriber base drop from 3.3m to 2.5m in the last 18 months.

An executive from the TV industry once told me that young enthusiastic techies like myself had been explaining to him how new technology would radically change the TV business for over ten years. This conversation took place over five years ago! His point was, and I suppose still is, that for fifteen years, waves of technical change have only reinforced the basic pay TV model. The still topical world recession hasn’t dented their subscriber numbers.

Let me revisit the content navigation issue once more. Beyond the sheer mass of available content where Google’s search will solve problems, the problem is also going to be about home networks. There’s no point having a great search engine if it cannot index the content on all the different devices in the home. Google is no better equipped than others to achieve seamless home networking. In fact, some like the proponents of the DLNA standard are probably better equipped for this.

I’ll end with lack of clarity from Google TV’s positioning.

Google champions the search paradigm where revenue is generated from advertising. With it’s Android operating system, Google is moving also into the iTunes/Appstore model where revenue is generated from the sale of apps. It’s not clear to me how Google will be able to play both hands simultaneously on the TV.

A blog entry by Vintner: If Google TV were a bicycle, I'm a fish also points to the lack of clarity. This fun read states that Google is no longer a start-up and that pushing technology is no longer enough, even if it’s cool technology.

Indeed, there’s already too much technology in the crowded TV space. What the industry desperately needs are viable business models to enable OTT content flows to complement - rather than replace  - existing pay TV platforms. So Google, please put your TV technology back in the R&D lab where it belongs and bring us the tools to find & monetise video from the web on the TV.

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The future of TV advertising Conference

A few months ago I helped Justin Lebbon to sketch out the initial outline for the Future of TV advertising conference in London on December 11th 2009. Have a look at the incredible speaker line-up that Zero Point Media and he have put together here.

This is the intro I wrote for the brochure.
From a techie background I always love it when I can work on things that ordinary people can understand, i.e. when you don’t feel such a nerd at dinner parties. Well TV advertising is something people really do care about.
Here is a conversation I had a few weeks ago when my neighbours came over for dinner.

She’s a print journalist and he puts up solar roofs so neither are at all connected to TV advertising. I told them I was planning to chair this event and this is what how I remember the conversation going:

Her: “Hey Ben that sounds cool. You know I might loose my job within the year because our daily just can’t re-invent itself on the web. I mean we get loads of visitors on the website, but it just doesn’t add up financially [I’m translating from the French so no pun was intended - and yes there are two d’s]. Aren’t you going to be talking about the same kind of thing with advertising: I mean at home we just fast-forward through most ads using the PVR. Like with my whole newspaper, the web is kind of slowly killing ads on the TV?”

Me: “Well err, I think …”

Him “OK yes maybe but if adverts could at least be interesting, then maybe we wouldn’t want to zap them all the time!”

Me: “well …”

Her: “Oh yes and I remember as a kid, always being cross with my dad if we were late for the ads at the cinema, they were an integral part of the experience.”

Me: “Yes indeed personalisation…”

Him: “But wait Ben, back to the first point, I mean doesn’t more and more TV come from the web anyway so couldn’t advertisers actually know who is behind each TV set?”

I then gave up trying to participate.

Her: “But darling, we get our TV from Orange so doesn’t it come from the Web anyway?”

Him: “Well I err think it’s what Ben called IPTV, and …”

That’s a much as I can remember. There’s enough food for thought there for a book’s worth let alone a blog post, and that’s from a layman’s perspective alone. Some of these issues were covered in detail at the conference