Selling on Emotion: Upfronts, TV Ads and Courting the Superfan

In a Digital World, Show Ratings and Demographics Don't Tell the Whole Story

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It's upfront season again in the TV advertising world, and early signs are that brands, finally, are again buying more of what networks are selling.

That's great news for the networks, after three straight years of declines in upfront ad-time purchases (and two years of plateaued spending before that). But as the buying season kicks off, let me suggest that brands should pay attention to some new factors this year as they lock in deals.

In the past, in making decisions about where to spend their ad dollars, buyers had only ratings and some demographic data about existing shows, plus a first peek at new ones coming in the fall. What I'd like to propose is that buyers not use, or just use, those same old methods this time around.

Oh sure, keep the ratings and demos you're used to working with. Nielsen's work continues to have value and it's evolving to embrace the new TV realities.

But show ratings and audience demographics by themselves no longer tell ad buyers everything they need to know in the new universe of "TV" we now live in. The TV audience is shifting, and in lots of directions at once. With it, the business is shifting, too.

Audiences are watching TV in more ways and on more platforms than ever, and at different times and in different settings. Just as importantly, audiences are talking about the shows they're watching, on more social media and chat and other online platforms than ever.

And when fans are talking about these shows, sharing important moments, creating content about the shows, and reacting to that, they're also evoking and expressing a whole raft of feelings and attachments about favorite programs.

The savviest programmers realize this. They're building shows that connect with and captivate dedicated, niche audiences who care deeply about that show. They're sharing compelling behind-the-scenes content, live tweeting with fans, and creating other experiences that will hook and engage the superfans who care most about a program.

And those shows and networks are exactly where advertisers should be. Those fans will be a show's best ambassadors. And the research says they'll also be the best ambassadors for brands advertising around that show.

The shows that stir emotional reactions are the ones that also will stir reactions and buying impulses for the ads of those shows. As they say in the business, that is gold. So it's important to figure out which companies are doing a good job reaching and holding those audiences your brand cares about most.

For instance, the two networks whose shows most often evoke the emotion "addicting" on Twitter were MTV and Freeform (then known as ABC Family), according to a Canvs analysis of tweets captured by Nielsen.

It shouldn't be a complete surprise -- both networks target millennials, who are tech-savvy and sharing-mad. They share everything they care about, including some of their favorite shows on those two networks.

"Addictive" programming isn't the only thing buyers should look for. For instance, what networks and shows do fans find consistently "funny?" A laughing fan is one predisposed to like the brands connected to those shows.

And though the industry may not be quite ready for it, let me propose another thing. Networks and show runners will become increasingly skilled at creating compelling niche programming for ardent superfan audiences. They're also going to get better at using the new measures of success and building to it.

At some point, as creators improve, and as brands integrate what this means for their bottom line, we'll have new network milestones for ad sales. Expect networks to begin guaranteeing more than just ratings.

Providing a minimum level of emotional reactions that can help drive advertising success will become important. And when a show doesn't drive that emotional response, a network will have to figure out how to make good on its promise.

By that point, the entire industry will know how much emotion matters in making a show, and its advertising, succeed. And then we'll really see the full power and value of advertising in the new TV universe.

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