'Contextual' ads connect auds, program content

A number of major TV players are taking a cue from the Internet in an effort to generate more bang for the buck in smallscreen advertising — and even their own promo campaigns.

“Contextual advertising,” or blurbs that have a connection to the content of the program that precedes each commercial break, is a hot topic these days in network and cable sales. Execs see the technology-enabled shift to the kind of user-targeted advertising found on the Internet as an important weapon in the ongoing battle against DVR ad-skipping.

The concept is based on how Google does business with its vaunted search engine. Search for “best tooth-brushes” and Google’s algorithms ensure that sponsored links for all manner of dental hygiene products pop up on the righthand side of the screen alongside the search results. Whether online or on TV, the thinking is that consumers will pay more attention, even subconsciously, if the ad message relates in some way to the program they’re watching.

Matching viewer interests and advertisers is much harder to do on a national TV network than it is for an individual person conducting a specific Web search. But the lessons of Internet advertising techniques are being taken to heart by buyers and sellers of TV time. And TV can reach millions of viewers at the same time — a kind of massive instant hit that still eludes the online world.

“We already knew that putting relevant commercial spots in the right place at the right time made your message a little louder and a little clearer,” says Linda Yaccarino, exec veep and chief operating officer of Turner Entertainment’s advertising sales/marketing and acquisitions department. “With the development of the C3 (commercial) ratings system and the maturation of DVR technology, it made it much more of a priority for us to say, ‘Hey we need to figure out a way to make the messages stand out.’?”

Contextual advertising on TV can be as simple as placing an ad for beer in the first commercial break after a scene in which a group of characters are hanging out in a bar. Or it can be as specific as a spot that acts as a cross-promotion for the network, a program and an advertiser. Turner Broadcasting, after investing heavily in the database and infrastructure needed for contextual ad sales, is pitching such hybrid spots under the marketing moniker Brands InContext.

In one such blurb, a woman is seen in a close-up running and sweating and looking fearfully over her shoulder as if she’s being followed. The camera pulls back to show her working out on a treadmill while she watches a “Law and Order” rerun on TNT, and then it pulls back more to show a brand of bottled water sitting on the table next to the treadmill.

TV nets long have sought to match advertisers with programming that is a natural fit with their products or services. Cable operators have been funding experiments in addressable advertising (spots targeted to distinct demographic groups and even individual viewers) in hopes of taking advantage of cable’s two-way pipe that has the ability to collect so much information on viewing habits.

Turner Broadcasting and others in recent years have also invested money, resources and a ton of research into the subliminal psychology of “priming,” or how to make advertising as effective as possible in motivating consumers to part with their money. WGN America made a point of announcing this month that it is offering contextual ad placements in “Entourage” when reruns of the HBO skein bow on the basic cabler this fall.

TV networks themselves are turning to algorithm-driven ad placement techniques in their own promotional campaigns, particularly for the fall season launch.

Dave Morgan, a former senior AOL ad sales exec, launched a Gotham-based marketing company, Simulmedia, two years ago, devoted to research that helps TV nets figure out the optimum time periods and shows to drive tune-in and viewer awareness of new shows.

Who knew that a 7:30 a.m. cable rerun of “Saved by the Bell” was a prime spot to lure viewers into checking out a new 10 p.m. procedural drama on a different channel? Simulmedia’s research, derived from household set-top box data licensed from cablers and satcasters, identified “Bell” and the time period as a good fit with the target aud of the new drama.

Because of privacy concerns, the set-top box data that Simulmedia licenses from DirecTV, Charter Communications and other distribs doesn’t include demographic data — just zip codes — but its research formulas were able to determine a high correlation between the two types of shows.

“We’re going to see more hyper-targeting of advertisements in all parts of TV,” Morgan says.

“Entourage” lends itself to a contextual blurb push because the show is steeped in pop culture, filled with fancy cars, and the guys are always on the go — e.g. a scene featuring agent Ari Gold hopping on a private jet for a jaunt to Las Vegas could lend itself to any number of tie-ins (think airlines, hotels, travel agencies, rental cars, etc.).

“The best programs are really brands unto themselves, and it just makes sense for advertisers who want to be in that brand to make the context of their ad relevant to what the viewer has just been watching in the show,” says Josh Richman, WGN America’s veep of marketing. “It’s just like if you’re going to a food website, you’re going to get (plugs) for food-related products.”

The response to the “Entourage” push so far has been encouraging, Richman says. WGN aims eventually to expand its offerings to movies and other off-net series headed to the cabler.

Turner’s focus on beefing up its contextual advertising biz began about three years ago when it devoted numerous staffers and 18 months to assembling an online database with details about every storyline and virtually every scene in movies and off-network series licensed by Turner’s TNT and TBS. That allowed the cabler’s sales force to present prospective advertisers with an array of options for contextual ad placements, which command premium rates.

This year, the initiative is expanding to original series on TNT, TBS and TruTV, which means that scripts for upcoming segs are sent to the advertising department as soon as they’re finalized, to be added to the database.

While noncontextual ad sales still make up the bulk of Turner’s blurb biz, Yaccarino sees targeting as an increasingly important way forward for ad-supported TV nets.

“As we look at the issue of how we continue to make money in an environment where everybody is impacted by technology and the fragmentation of the audience, you have to look at the importance of how we place our (30-second spots),” she said. “This format is getting more and more support from the advertising community.”

Simulmedia’s Morgan, who spent nearly 20 years in online advertising, says the innovations percolating in traditional TV advertising have the potential to vastly expand the domestic TV ad-spending pie, which today stands at about $70 billion annually for local and national blurbs. That sentiment is a big turnaround from just a few years ago when the chatter on Madison Avenue was all about digital advertising slaying the traditional 30-second spot.

“People have been saying that TV was going to go to the Web. I think what’s really happening is that (attributes of) the Web are coming to TV,” Morgan says. “TV is the most powerful medium in the world. What you have now is people demonstrating that they can make it even better for marketers, with much more scale and much more impact.”

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