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Disney’s lab studies people

Studio aims to crack 'whys'

Test screeners cut out middle man | Hollywood dives into data | Tentpoles drive pic research

Who can blame TV advertisers if they find themselves a bit fearful in media’s new digital world?

Nonlinear channels, time-shifting, streaming, mobile and different flavors of VOD have splintered the once-vast TV audience. Fat ratings are no longer enough to coax multimillion dollar ad buys out of agencies. Instead advertisers want more evidence that commercials and ad campaigns are actually connecting with viewers.

To provide those assurances — both for its advertisers, like tech giant Cisco, and for its own use — Disney has set up the Disney Media and Advertising Lab in Austin, Texas, which uses hard science to figure out what works, and, maybe more important, why it works.

“To get to the ‘why’ you need to be able to control things, and the only way to do that is within a lab environment,” says Artie Bulgrin, senior VP of research and analytics for ESPN.

The lab doesn’t depend on viewers’ reports of how they reacted, because surveys turn out to be somewhat unreliable, even at the most basic level, Bulgrin says.

“When we phone somebody up the next day and ask if they watched ‘SportsCenter’ or ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ and they say they did, we don’t know in fact that they did.”

Bulgrin notes that surveys also only work on things that are already available to the public. The lab’s greatest value, he says, is that it lets Disney test things that aren’t in the marketplace yet or are only available to a tiny number of viewers, like 3D TV.

“Most of the things we’re testing are nascent or don’t exist (outside the lab), so we can’t use traditional research methods. We have to bring it (into) the lab.”

An Ad Lab experiment is built on strict scientific principles, with control groups, and with every effort made to isolate a single variable.

A typical study might have two similar groups of viewers witnessing almost identical content under identical conditions. That way any differences in their reactions can be attributed to the difference in content alone.

The lab gathers biometric data on the viewers: eye-gaze tracking, heart rate, skin conductivity. That information gives insight into their reactions that surveys couldn’t capture. For the future, the lab is looking at brainwave measurements as another tool.

The concept for the Disney lab was born at a Disney ad sales forum. The Mouse and its advertisers found it was becoming very difficult to know which ads were working.

Traditionally, the nets would create content or ads, then survey viewers for reaction.

“The problem with that is, if we get a survey that says it worked really well, or that says it worked really poorly, then what do we do?” Bulgrin says. “We don’t know why it worked well or it worked poorly. The optimal thing would be to cultivate and test and retest the content or the advertising without going to the public, without going on air, until we have proof of performance that we’ve got it right.”

As it happened, Disney and ESPN had been members of the Beyond 30 research consortium, created by Duane Varan of the Interactive TV Research Institute at Murdoch U., in Perth, Australia. Varan and Beyond 30 were working on exactly those problems. Disney asked Varan to set up a lab.

Staff includes a half-dozen Ph.D.s, and there are 10,000 local residents in the pool of potential audience volunteers. Details of the lab’s environment are carefully chosen to avoid influencing results, right down to its Austin location, which was chosen, in part, because it was between the two coasts. The Disney name doesn’t appear on the building.

In two years, the Ad Lab has done more than 70 studies on topics including standard-def. vs. HD advertising; viewer responses to 3D TV; digital advertising and co-branded advertising.

Peter Seymour, executive VP of strategy and research for Disney Media Networks, says the lab has done a tremendous amount of research around on-air integrations for ABC and ABC Family. Advertisers want to be embedded in programming to thwart DVR skipping. “We’d test an integration on its own, we’d test 30-second spots on their own, and both together,” Seymour says. “We found the combination was most effective.

“The live ad conditions the person, so when the commercials play, they’re more engaged and you get that more impactful effect of the combination.”

For Cisco, the lab tested soccer and non-soccer themed spots in the context of World Cup programming.

“We’re using the findings to inform future campaigns as we continue to utilize sports as a means to increase brand awareness across the board,” says Diane Dudeck, Cisco’s senior director-worldwide media, sports and entertainment marketing.

Dudeck calls the lab a valuable resource and says the findings will guide future experiments as well as marketing decisions. “The more we know, the better we can not only tailor our communication, but measure that communication moving forward.”

The lab has been studying viewer reactions to content on different-sized screens, and Bulgrin says the results have been surprising.

“The smaller screen can be just as effective as the 50-inch display in your living room,” he says. Because smaller screens are held closer to the eyes and are more interactive, he says, “there’s an orienting effect. The viewer becomes oriented to that device.

“Whereas conventional wisdom would have said video advertising on those smallscreens can’t be as effective, in fact, they can be. And the best part is we can explain (why this is so) to our advertisers (and) to our content guys up in Bristol.”

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