The meteoric rise in the number of connected devices and the advance of hardware and software products by providers including Google and Apple to leverage the three screens – mobile, TV and Internet— has whet consumers’ appetites for new and connected experiences that deliver us content across time, place and platforms.
Indeed, 2010 has turned out to be the year for multi-screen content services and – more importantly – for multi-purpose applications and solutions that allow consumers to call the shots. Nielsen Three Screen Report – a regular analysis from Nielsen’s Cross-Platform Audience Measurement initiative to analyze consumer behavior –reveals a steady climb in the number of Americans that use the Internet (in many cases accessing the Web on their smartphones) and their TV simultaneously. As Nielsen observes: “New mobile devices and enhanced TV quality allow viewers to engage in more content than ever before.”
This increase in multi-screen services is enabled by the growing consumer adoption of fixed line and mobile broadband services. High-speed broadband Internet access, now in over 60 percent of American homes, has created a better user experience for watching online videos. Nearly a quarter of households have smartphones, enabling consumers to “place shift” and watch video wherever they are.
While the growth in mobile online video viewing has increased over 50 percent year over year, the real story is the avalanche of applications and business models sharply aimed at bringing online video control and content to smartphones and tablets.
The last months have seen a slew of apps from companies across the ecosystem. Media companies and content providers — including TV Guide, the one-stop destination for television listings — have released applications for iPhone, Android and iPad platforms.
At the other end of the spectrum, service providers and telcos are pursuing models to put them back in the center of our online viewing experience. Established players (such as carriers and cable TV companies) are extending their turf, while providers that focus on place-shifting products are just beginning to flex their muscles in mobile.
Satellite TV provider DirecTV has an app for its subscribers that lets them use their mobile phones to purchase pay-per-view programming and schedule how and when they record their favorite shows. Comcast, one of the leading cable providers in the U.S., has taken the wraps off their Xfinity TV app for the iPad, that allows digital subscribers to watch movies and TV shows on the tablet device, as well as program their digital video recorders, browse content by keyword or title, create a watch list of favorite shows, and share viewing choices with others via social networks. Additionally, traditional wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon are leveraging their “triple-play” bundles to deliver video content across screens and devices. And the list goes on.
Sensing a business opportunity online video service providers are also lining up to get in on the action. Hulu, a service that offers users online access to hit TV shows, has launched Hulu Plus, a premium-level subscription service that allows users to stream video to connected TVs, Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, set-top boxes, iPads, iPhones, and other devices. Not to be outdone, Sling Media, a provider of video place-shifting products, just announced the availability of the SlingPlayer Mobile player for the Apple iPad. This will allows Slingbox owners with iPads to change channels, control their DVRs and watch their favorite shows anywhere they have an Internet connection.
Granted, many of these companies are currently only active on two of the three screens. But their future objective is to be present across all three screens – and every other connected device their customers interact with as part of their daily routine.
Hypercompetition for the customer
These apps, services and enhancements don’t just encourage consumers to watch more video (in many cases outside traditional broadcast and cable TV airing times and places); they turn up the pressure on providers to deliver content users appreciate to the platforms they prefer.
As a result, the relationship between the users, the content they view, and the devices they view it on have become increasingly complex. Traditional viewing habits no longer apply to these new devices and consumers, already struggling to cope with hundreds of cable TV channels, thousands of movies, hundreds of thousands of apps, and millions of songs now must navigate these content choices against an ever more complex set of services and devices.
Part of the solution is simpler interfaces and easier access. However, consumers also expect more flexibility, greater convenience and less hassle. In this converged digital environment providers are forced to compete on how well they really know their customers, insights they obtain by harnessing information and data about their customers across multiple touch points.
Fortunately, service providers already have a handle on what is needed to construct a new and unified view of the customer across all three screens. Their arsenal of capabilities includes the ability to offer users a single sign on experience across devices, to collect and analyze customer data and anonymized data sets, and to wield complex content management systems that match content to context and interface with external APIs.
Service providers are also accustomed to following the clues we leave behind, such as browsing patterns and purchase records, to determine (and deliver) us content and services we are likely to appreciate.
However, delivering personalized recommendations for a multi-platform experience demands services providers master much more than content tagging and customer profiling. And it calls for approaches that go far beyond plain-vanilla personalization schemes that merely gather information during the interaction with the user to construct a TV guide matched to expressed viewing tastes, for example.
The convergence of TV, Web and mobile platforms demands providers harness a multi-platform approach that enables them to create a persistent and personalized experience across (and between) the screens to which they distribute their content.
Specifically, providers must enlarge their arsenal of capabilities to enable real-time learning (following the digital bread crumb trails we leave across platforms and devices to consistently deliver us content we’ll appreciate), device specific recommendations (understanding what content we access on what devices and then serving us content in ways that suits the device we are on at that moment) and situational methodologies (wielding all the approaches and algorithms available to deliver the right content to the right subscriber at the right time and consistently across the content delivery ecosystem).
It’s a new game with new rules. Success requires customer-centricity and a personalization approach that get the right content in front of the right users. To achieve this, providers must create different and relevant experiences for each subscriber. They must also deliver timely recommendations based on users’ real-time behavior. It’s not enough to have a personalization system that updates every few days or even hours. We’re talking about minutes.
Why? Because delivering multi-platform personalization is a new paradigm that requires providers to accommodate changing relationships that involve both the content they offer and the customer segments they serve. Content, like produce on the shelf, must be fresh. Moreover, its delivery much be perfectly aligned with the viewing preferences of the individual.
Viewing habits are by no means static, nor are they always logical. In fact, they can change dramatically and unexpectedly as timeslots shift, shows ratings move and events happen. Excellent examples of these are live events such as sports tournaments, music concerts and political elections. They are hot when they happen and stale when they’re over. Recommending these programs to consumers after the buzz is has dissipated delivers more than a poor experience; it can cost you customers.
It’s equally bad practice to read too much into these mega-events. During the World Cup just about everyone is glued to a screen of some kind (TV, mobile, PC) to watch their team. But assuming that an individual is a die-hard soccer fan simply because they – like millions of other people – watched the games last summer is patently false.
Predictably, a plain-vanilla recommendation system will do just that. It will connect the dots to conclude that the individual is a loyal soccer fan. It will also recommend more soccer related content and possibly even suggest the individual download a World Cup-themed mobile game. Talk about overkill.
The correct approach – provided the recommendation systems understands and can accommodate changing relationships – is to track dynamic user behavior over time. The aim is not to suggest more of the same content; it must have the ability to learn and recognize that viewing a soccer game in the soccer season doesn’t mean the individual is a soccer fan.
It’s even better if the system learns so much that it can introduce some randomness into the equation, delivering users recommendations outside of what they would normally receive. This opens the door to machine-created serendipity and encourages consumers to fully explore content in the catalog, allowing providers to broaden and deepen our understanding of what users want and appreciate.
It’s also important that a system understands people generally access content on their own terms and using the device they prefer. A user may access content on a mobile phone during the daily commute, but prefer to watch online video on a laptop if the trip is longer. Or the user may watch all content on a tablet except sports, which the individual watches on TV as a rule – period.
One can imagine an infinite number of combinations because viewing habits and preferences are as individual as the users themselves. Delivering multi-platform personalization requires a system that analyzes user behavior across all these devices and uses these observations to ensure an optimal user experience every time and on every device.
In addition, content should not only be accessible and simple to navigate across the three screens (or how ever many screens the provider distributes their content to). The provider’s catalog should be effectively revamped in real-time to make every item shown relevant and personal.
Finally, a multi-platform personalization approach should not require providers to choose one model over another. Reams have been written about recommenders and the models providers can choose from. From collaborative filtering, to market basket analysis, and from social network analysis to Bayesian modeling, each approach has its merits.
But why should a provider have to choose just one? The best approach is the one that encompasses all the approaches. And the one a provider employs should depend only on the situation.
A good analogy is baseball. There each team has a bullpen of pitchers, and each has their talent. One pitcher might throw a killer curveball and the other might serve up an amazing fastball. The point is: the manager decides the right pitcher for the right job depending on what’s needed to strike out the player from the opposing team. The final decision depends on the situation.
In effective multi-platform personalization the winning approach is the one that uses the right combination of algorithms and methodologies to determine the best content for the user, processing the individual’s unique behavior, consumption patterns and preferences for each of their devices.
This is the ideal user experience. It’s also the vision that has guided our company, Sidebar, in the development of a new breed of personalization technology, one that takes a smart, modular, and multi-platform approach. Specifically, it breaks down the device and platform silos, leveraging mobile, PC and Web usage to create a global understanding of each customer. It then uses this insight to deliver each user the best recommendation for every unique situation.
Content & conversations
But it’s not only about presenting people with recommendations based on preferences, opt-in interests, observed behaviors and demographics. It’s also about empowering people to participate in the provider’s ecosystem.
This is critical (and common sense) because people trust people, not machines. In fact, our requirement for human input and judgment is driving search engine giants to adopt new approaches and make way for new people-powered search schemes that effectively infuse human preferences into computer algorithms to deliver truly relevant results, not just search-optimized web destinations.
The importance of trust is even greater in a multi-platform environment, where people are allowing providers to access their personal data and insights into what content they access on which device (information that is anonymized and cannot be linked back to a specific individual) in order to deliver relevant and useful content across three screens.
People must feel that they are in control of the data they volunteer, and they must feel empowered to contribute their feedback to the process. To this end recommendations systems must offer people the opportunity to become partners in their personalized experiences.
And these systems must show the tangible benefits that come from this participation, namely accurate recommendations that reflect a deep understanding of the individual, not the ability to group people into cut-and-dried categories. After all, there’s nothing more disappointing than a wrong recommendation, or having to navigate scores of inappropriate recommendations for horror films just because you’re hooked on Twilight and enjoy vampire-themed, romance movies.
Moving forward, personalization is not just a feature of what providers offer. Soon it will sit at the center of everything they do.
A key driver will be Social TV – the extension of social media into the discovery, viewing, and interaction around television. Social TV is more than a pastime; it’s fast gaining traction to be the next megatrend.
In May 2010, Social TV was named one of the 10 most important emerging technologies by the MIT Technology Review. It harnesses the relationships we already have in social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter to inspire people to connect with entertainment, like movies and TV. It also allows people to share their feelings about what they watch – while they watch it.
Social TV also enables social exchange, allowing friends and followers to read updates posted on social networks such as Twitter and draw from these to decide what programs they themselves might also enjoy. Think of it as a new kind of content recommendation that people will consider because it comes directly from people they know or whose taste they respect.
And let’s not forget the ability of social media to make TV viewing social again. It used to be that families and friends sat down in front of the TV set at the same time every week to enjoy a popular sitcom and then spend hours talking about the best scenes or what made them laugh most. The advent of the Internet, the rise of the DVR and the advance of connected devices – platforms that allow people to place shift their viewing and schedule their content consumption — have changed this routine forever.
Thus, Social TV puts the tools in our hands to contribute to the discussion around TV programs – any time it suits us. We can also connect with friends, followers and people we trust to find out what shows they watch or record as a means of discovering new content we’re sure to like.
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to imagine new business models that will deliver new levels of interaction across screens and across the ecosystem. We have already seen consumers move away from buying DVDs to renting movies instead (both in physical and digital forms). Riding this wave Netflix already provides its library to subscribers across a variety of devices including connected TVs, Blu-Ray players, game consoles, and iPads. With players including Hulu, Sling Media and Sony jumping on the bandwagon, it’s a given that 2011 will see multi-platform content services break on to the mainstream where people will harness Social TV to spread the word.
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Editor’s note: Patrick Kennedy is the CEO of Sidebar, Inc., a company providing multi-platform personalization and recommendation. Sidebar’s Smart Menu platform acts as a cloud-based brain that analyzes behaviors to learn how each user consumes content differently on each of their devices and makes recommendations contextual to those devices. In addition, Sidebar offers a Smart Messaging tool that harnesses text messaging to create (and continue) interaction between the provider and subscriber.