Your favorite show or a 40-minute ad? How one media brand blurred the lines of traditional advertising

Kristen Shipley October 2019 Video, Television & Film

How did you discover the last show that you watched? Maybe you got a recommendation from a friend, or saw a trailer for a show and looked it up, or maybe you did both.

As ABC prepared for the second season of the hit drama “A Million Little Things,” it explored a way to get new viewers to tune in to the series: Show them an entire episode as an ad.

Why this approach? Based on its own research, the network discovered that many people are taking a multipronged approach — word of mouth, online research, and more — when seeking out a new show. They almost have to.

“People are inundated with so many options when it comes to what shows to watch,” said Erin Weir, senior VP of marketing strategy at ABC Entertainment. “The conversation is very often ‘What shows are you watching now? What shows should I watch next?’ We saw increased search around this idea of ‘What should I watch?’”

Leaning into content discovery

In fact, searches for “what shows to watch” spiked about 30% from 2018 to 2019 and continue to remain pretty steady.1 ABC leaned into this content-discovery journey to continue the momentum after the Season 1 finale of “A Million Little Things.”

The network wanted to grow its audience for Season 2, but knew that viewers who didn’t watch the first season were unlikely to hop on board for a second season. ABC thought there might be an opportunity in binge-watching. According to Deloitte, 75% of all consumers say they have binge-watched TV. So ABC asked the question: How can we get people to binge Season 1 in the month of May?

Instead of showing a traditional recap video of Season 1, ABC featured the 43-minute pilot as an ad. Aiming to reach casual TV viewers and drama fans, the network ran the pre-roll ad before TV-related content on YouTube, like clips from popular dramas or late-night shows. The ad was shown exclusively via YouTube on TV screens, which is when viewers use connected TV devices like smart TVs and game consoles to stream TV content.

“The rise in watch time on connected television was an indicator for us that we could do an experiment like this. When you are watching on connected TV, you are likely on a bigger screen, ready to have a leaned-back viewing experience and watch something a bit longer,” said Weir.

Flow chart shows paths of Viewer A watching 40-minute pre-roll ad of pilot episode and being shown a 15-second ad with “critical acclaim” messaging, and Viewer B watching 40-minute pre-roll ad and being shown a 30-second “Season 1 streaming on Hulu” ad

By leveraging video ad sequencing, ABC was able to customize a viewer’s ad experience based on how they reacted to the initial episode. If they chose to watch the whole episode, showing their interest, ABC followed up with a promotion encouraging them to binge the rest of the first season on Hulu before the release of Season 2 in the fall. If viewers chose to skip the episode, subsequent ads showed “critical acclaim” messaging with an intent to demonstrate the show’s bonafides and hint at what people may be missing.

Consuming content, not advertising

“We wanted to engage viewers with fresh content, so people aren’t getting hit with the same ad over and over again,” said Weir. “We are using technology that can show people new characters or new storylines so it feels like they are consuming content, not just consuming advertising.”

The approach helped ABC measure success of its main KPI: show views. Nearly 80K people watched the entire episode. On top of that, searches for the show on YouTube spiked over 200%, showing that people were interested in learning more about the show. ABC also saw an increase in brand metrics and organic watch time, key indicators for driving tune-in of its Thursday night show.

ABC continues to apply lessons learned from this new approach to its advertising. For example, people identified as superfans of “A Million Little Things” were served an ad with the opening scene from Season 2 before it premiered.

ABC also applied this tactic to its new show “Emergence.” If people watched the trailer without skipping, the next ad from ABC was the first 9-minutes of the pilot.

“We didn’t know if this ‘episode-as-an-ad’ approach would work, but after someone suggested the idea, we wanted to test it to see how it would perform,” said Weir. “The content world is changing so quickly that you have to take risks and test the boundaries. We were truly pleased with the results.”

Why you remembered that YouTube ad