Second Screen Ads : Is Native the Future?

As the Second Screen has moved from learning to monetization, the topic of 2nd Screen Ads comes up more frequently both in the crystal balling and the concrete. In theory, Second Screen Ads could be seen as Mobile Ads redux (eyeballs, impressions, problem solved!), but in practice not quite so. Second screen doesn’t have the eyeball volume (as I chronicled here and here) to adopt a monetization model based purely on volume of impressions. Nor does it have a rich location vocabulary of mobile apps (unless you consider ‘left side of couch’ and ‘right side of couch’ as separately interesting ad buys). However TV Context is a weapon second screens do have, and a variety of programmers are following the tri-part formula of – a) build proprietary app to ‘own’ your TV context, b) use the simplest possible Ad real-estate (i.e. clickable banner) as a window to monetize this context, and c) recycle your traditional ad inventory to fill this real estate.

The problem with this seemingly pragmatic strategy (i.e. use familiar Ad User Experience and existing inventory in new market) is that it is as effective as bringing a Ukelele to a Symphony. Current web Ad formats are designed for (visually) simple & targeted experiences. This is fundamentally at odds with Second Screen experiences that are and will remain complex visual experiences for two reasons :

  • Today – Complexity as Organizational Reality. 2nd Screen Apps are rife, 2nd Screen strategies not so much. What I mean is that most media organizations are putting out 2nd screen Apps so as to not be left behind. Few have really thought out what it means in terms of storytelling. Consequently, Apps by RFP are the vogue (a big dollop of lurid show imagery, a generous side dish of Twitter feeds, and 3 dashes of Trivia please). The App development shops love it (complexity = development and maintenance revenue)  the media houses are OK with it (have 2nd Screen Initiative?, check), and the users .. umm, on the fence.
  • Tomorrow – Complexity as Visual Throughput. There will be a point where 2nd Screen is burned into every show producer’s vernacular and emerges as an organic part of storytelling. This in turn might obviate the visual complexity that comes from indecision that afflicts today’s Apps. But it is my conjecture that visual complexity will persist because of the ephemeral nature of secondary screen attention. If you want a ‘unit of storytelling’ in the 30 seconds that someone looks away from the TV screen because he is bored by a particularly pompous Bryant Gumbel, or the ad nauseum replay of the Progressive Insurance commercial, then rich visual is the best way to engage with velocity, purpose and enchantment.

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If complexity of experience is an invariant for 2nd screens, then Ad formats developed for quick 2.9 word searches may be insufficient. The ability to visually cancel out a banner is easy, in a panoply of visual activity. And for those that don’t visually cancel it out, the Ad is visually and contextually incongruous.

It would seem like the solution is for Ad Units and Second Screen storytelling to be simultaneously co-invented, so that the Brands aren’t intrusive and foreign messages in high velocity storytelling. The success of inline Twitter Ads and the Bluefin extension (a thinly veiled analog to retargeting!) has certainly prompted a surge of interest in Native Advertising, which is closely related to my proposal here.

But what exactly does Native mean for the Second Screen? How does something that works for a targeted and terse storytelling style such as Twitter translate to 2nd screen TV? Perfectly valid questions – and a topic for the next missive.