In-depth: Martin Greenbank at Channel 4

by Jessica Ramesh
Martin Greenbank, Head of Advertising Research & Development at Channel 4

Martin Greenbank, Head of Advertising Research & Development at Channel 4, is among the speakers at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference on 26 November 2015. He talks to Figaro Digital about a recent study which found that advertising on TV on-demand players outperforms YouTube for viewer engagement.

Just how valuable is a video view? And how do you measure that value? Recent research by Channel 4 suggests that the answer to both those questions depends on where a video ad is viewed.

Channel 4’s study, undertaken with Cog Research, examined differences in the way viewers consume video on demand (VoD) on different platforms via mobiles, tablets and laptops. It found that advertising on TV on-demand players outperforms YouTube (and other video platforms) for viewer acceptance, engagement and attention. The way viewers consume VoD content, it seems, is just as important as what they consume.

Disruption and distraction

“This was a very investigative study,” says Martin Greenbank, Head of Advertising Research & Development at Channel 4. “We weren’t looking to either prove or disprove any particular thing, though we did have a hypothesis. Anecdotally, we’d seen evidence that broadcaster VoD is watched in a different way to platforms like YouTube, and underpinning that is the way the players have been designed. We found that three-and-a-half times more attention was being paid to the broadcaster VoD commercial secondage than to YouTube’s commercial secondage. We didn’t expect that, but the figures were consistent across a significant number of observations.”

This wasn’t just about eyeballs, however. The study also examined viewers’ physiological responses.

“We wanted to find out how viewers’ brains were responding to what they were seeing,” says Greenbank. “We found that on broadcaster VoD players, ads are consumed in a very similar mental and emotional state to that in which the programmes are consumed. That suggested to us that the ads weren’t such a disruptive element. They reached viewers in what we term a ‘relaxed and fluid’ state of mind. That was very different to the experience they had while watching YouTube, Facebook or publisher sites like MailOnline.”

The reason for that, says Greenbank, is because busy social media platforms and publisher sites, with their rolling sidebars, flashing notifications and continuous updates, hit us with too much information. Literally. Neuroscientist Dr Amanda Ellison from Durham University was on hand to interpret the results of Channel 4’s study. She found that video ads on YouTube threw viewers out of the ‘relaxed and fluid’ state associated with watching a chosen piece of content and knocked them into a more distracted, planning-oriented state.

“The primary purpose of social media is not to serve video in the way that TV or a broadcaster player does,” says Greenbank. “That means that when video is served, it can feel as if there’s been a compromise. On Facebook, for example, you don’t select to play the video content that appears in your newsfeed. It plays automatically. So it feels intrusive because it’s an unrequested assault on your senses.

“We got a real education from our neuroscientist in this project. If you’re rationally engaged with an ad, you’re probably not taking that ad in. It’s the same as when you’re watching a drama: you’re not stopping to think about what each character is doing. You don’t think about the kind of car they’re driving. You’re having that relaxed, fluid, lean-back experience. Once you’re in that state your brain activity becomes less spiky.”

That’s because when we’re enjoying our favourite show, we’re in a mode of thought which psychologists refer to as system 1: it’s instinctive, emotional and puts us in a more responsive frame of mind. System 2, by contrast, is slower, deliberative and more logical. And if you’re an advertiser the most effective and lasting viewer response comes from making a deep emotional impact with the ad.

“When an ad leaps out at you on social media and starts shouting ‘Hey! Do you want to skip me? Look at all this other stuff down the side there,’ your cognitive load increases. Your eyes are darting all over the place. As soon as you flip out of that lean-back state you’re much less able to take in emotional messages. You enter a state of cognitive dissonance. It’s like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. You can’t do both.”

YouTube’s player, explains Greenbank, wasn’t designed to house huge numbers of ads or to keep us watching intently in the same way that we watch TV. “It was designed to host short-form clips. The original challenge was to flip people from watching one short clip to the next in order to keep them on the site for as long as possible. That’s why the sidebar and the menu are there. But when we watched people using YouTube in a real-life setting we found that most people weren’t full-screening and they almost always skip ads when they can.”

Broadcaster VoD players, by contrast, mimic the experience we have of sitting in front of a TV set at home. “The design of the players on Channel 4, ITV and Sky means that when you choose to watch a bit of content on your tablet or smartphone, in almost all cases it appears full screen. When the programme hits a break, the ads are also full screen. You’re not given the option to do anything other than watch the ad or literally cast your eyes away from the device you’re watching on.”

Avoiding ad avoidance

Another significant factor facing video advertisers on social platforms is ad avoidance. As Greenbank points out, if viewers are given the option to avoid video ads on social media, they will. In fact, he says, in the 40 hours of Channel 4’s study there wasn’t a single instance where viewers watched more than five seconds of an ad on YouTube, when given the option to skip.

“If you ask most people if they watch the ads on broadcaster VoD, they’ll say no. We were trying to find out how much time they really spent watching the ads and how much time they spent watching content. When we played the results back to respondents, they were amazed at how much of the ads they did watch on a broadcaster player. We were expecting that when the ads came on people would look round the room. But they didn’t. One of our respondents had a laptop balanced on her knee and her baby held against her chest. Even she didn’t stop watching when the ads came on!

“In fact there’s an interesting stat that you can derive from comScore data, which gives you a measure of how much ad avoidance is going on. Let’s take YouTube as an example and ask what’s the minutage of ads consumed versus the minutage of content? Even though there’s an ad prior to almost every single bit of content on YouTube, the ratio is about 400 minutes of content viewing to one minute of ads. When you look at broadcaster players the ratio is ten minutes of content to one minute of ads. That’s because no skipping is allowed. That shows you the scale of ad avoidance that YouTube has to deal with. Over the last 18 months more ads have become forced plays, which don’t give you the option to skip. But even that isn’t necessarily solving the problem for them because of the player’s design and the sidebar with all those options for other things to do. That problem doesn’t exist on broadcaster players.”

Lastly there’s the issue of how to measure not just the quantity but the quality of video views. Greenbank is Board Director of BARB (Broadcast Audience Research Board), where he represents Channel 4’s interests and helps in the development of the UK’s TV measurement system. As he points out, BARB’s most recent TV player report deliberately doesn’t use ‘views’ as a metric because “it’s disingenuous. Instead they’re using a metric called the ‘average programme stream’ which is very much like the way you measure the average audience of a TV programme on a TV set. That’s because it’s not just about how many requests to view you get. It’s how many people stay and engage with the content that’s important.”

Feature by Jon Fortgang