Mark Ritson: YouTube will never be a match for the telly

To be a marketer in 2013 is to encounter a peculiar form of propaganda in which all things digital are promoted as the replacement for, antidote to, and general nemesis of traditional media. That’s especially true for TV which, if the reports are to be believed, is on its last legs as a marketing medium.

It was this propaganda that fuelled the hyperbolic coverage of Oreo’s tweet during the NFL Super Bowl in January and the crazy conclusion that this social media campaign had ‘won’ the battle for audience impact versus traditional TV ads on America’s biggest night for advertising. This was despite the fact that Oreo’s tweeted message – that you could dunk your cookie in the dark – was seen by less than 1 per cent of the audience that watched most of the TV ads that night. Even if it had been seen by similar numbers, it would have been no match for some of the powerful 60- and 90-second executions aired that evening.

It was this kind of hype that encouraged Google chief executive Eric Schmidt to brazenly claim in May that online video would not only surpass traditional TV viewing but that it had already happened. He told advertisers that with YouTube enjoying more than 1 billion unique visitors every month, the site had taken over traditional TV viewing. Although his comments made for great headlines, it just wasn’t true. Traditional TV remains the dominant activity for most viewers and, according to consulting firm PwC’s analysis of global ad spending, it will continue to dwarf online TV ad revenues to the tune of £50bn versus less than £4bn as far off as 2017.

It’s the same propaganda that propels many very average marketing managers to spend too much money on social media despite being unable to show even the most basic return on investment. Several years into the digital revolution, most brands are persevering with their YouTube channels and associated online video despite the fact that they have poor subscriber numbers, representing a dismal fraction of their target market. At best these channels generate no more than 50,000 views for their most popular video, despite being posted nine months ago and heavily promoted at launch. Meanwhile the ‘dying’ medium of TV continues to deliver millions of eyes on screen on a nightly basis and, most embarrassingly, refuses to start showing either decreased audience numbers or spot prices.

The digital propaganda also enabled Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice-president of global marketing solutions, to recently tell the Financial Times that TV was no longer the first screen. “Mobile is the primary screen,” she claimed. Again it’s a nice statement if you are in the digital business but it hardly fits the data. While audiences, especially younger demographic segments, are clearly embracing digital viewing modes, they are not doing so at the expense of traditional TV viewing.

“There is a popularised notion of the typical teenager constantly digitally connected. In fact, teens consume the vast, vast majority of their video content via traditional television,” says Sanford C. Bernstein & Co, which co-authored the 2012 report Why The Internet Won’t Kill TV. According to the research, American teens watched only 3 per cent of their total video consumption on computer or mobile device in 2012. TV remained their main viewing resource and was actually shown to be increasing among this group.

That increase was also identified in Ofcom’s analysis of UK media consumption. Despite the adoption of new digital viewing styles, TV remains the central model of watching video in this country. According to Ofcom’s data, average TV viewing has increased by an additional 20 minutes since 2005. “Increasingly, families are gathering in the living room to watch TV, just as they were in the 1950s,” explains Ofcom’s James Thickett, director of nations and market developments. The only apparent difference is that they are doing it a bit more frequently and on better quality TV sets. So much for the death of traditional TV.

I’ll leave it to younger, thinner and more gullible marketing experts to predict the demise of TV and the subsequent triumph of online video. I am older, fatter and come from the 1980s and can tell you, without even the slightest element of doubt, that the telly remains the most important brand-building tool for most brands, most of the time.

So bollocks to YouTube and bollocks to all those who would tell you that TV is dead.

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