Stop bombarding eyeballs!
Start tugging heartstrings!

Engagement is the new buzzword. But there’s more confusion than practice. And marketers continue in the familiar mode of bombarding eyeballs. So why haven’t our marketers adapted to the new reality? Have they not bought the case for abandoning eyeball bombardment in favour of engaging the hearts and minds of consumers? Do they still believe that bombardment of a switched-off consumer with an interruptive, repetitive 30 seconder will brainwash them into buying their brand? Let’s assess the case for moving from the traditional advertising forms into finding greater marketing effectiveness through engagement.


Once upon a time in the last century, Sri Lankan audiences experienced TV for the first time in the late ‘70s. With one and then two channels for many years and the novelty of the new medium, families huddled together at prime time, sometimes with the intrusion of a less affluent neighbour, to watch those wonderful tear-jerking teledramas. With TV ratings running in the high 60s and 70s, as the then available diary research indicated, and TV rates unbelievably low to reflect state policy to make advertising available local small businesses as well, TV advertising soon became the most effective medium to move the sales curve. We’d make a ‘theme commercial’ and run it for an year or even two, and consumers would still watch it attentively, recall and talk about it, and it all worked very well. Even through the ‘80s and ‘90s TV rates were affordable, even for smaller brands, and effectiveness and return were unquestionable. With increasing channels and the advent of the remote control, came also the ‘Peoplemeters’ which could mechanically monitor even second by second channel surfing, though data was supplied by more usable 15 second blocks, and lo and behold – marketers had to come to grips with the reality that audiences had shrunk considerably! The remote enabled people to zap commercials and watch another programme till the one they were interested in actually started. Peoplemeter data would tell you that your TVC queued at the beginning of a long commercial line-up before a popular programme didn’t give you the return you expected.


All that is now history. Today, we have 13 terrestrial channels, and cable TV & DTH service providers offering in excess of 50 channels of quality international fare. TV ratings have dropped with the fragmentation of the audience between these channels. Only 5 programmes out of over 180,000 aired in 2007 had ratings over 15, down from 33 programmes in 2005 and 8 in 2006. 4 out of the 5 were the Sirasa Superstar finals and semis and the other was the ICC World Cup Final. Programmes commanding ratings between 10-15 were greater in number but had declined from 1,162 in 2005 to 573 in 2007, or a mere average of 1.5 programmes a day. In percentage terms, programmes with over 10% of households watching had declined from less than 1% in 2005 to a third of that figure by 2007. More than 93% of the programmes were watched by less than 3% of the audience (see pie chart for 2007 below).

Meanwhile, TV advertising costs have risen. A 30” TVC on a high-rated prime time teledrama which was Rs.22,000 in 2001 today is Rs.150,000 today. A spot on the main news which was Rs.30,000 in 2001 costs Rs.70,000 today. Of course, the media specialist agencies are now here to help you identify and make the best buys at much better rates making use of their media research and planning know-how and buying clout and or volume discounts.


While marketers have sought to combat the changes in the media environment and declining value with greater buying efficiencies, they appear not to have questioned the effectiveness of repetitive TV commercial amidst the clutter. On an average day Sri Lankan audiences are bombarded with 3,379 commercial exposures of all kinds, including 1,319 TV commercials of varying length from 15-45 seconds. A viewer watching prime time TV between 7-10 pm on any one of the popular channels would be bombarded with between 43 to 113 commercial exposures depending on the channel.


Day-after-recall rates are declining judging by international studies (see figure above) though this appears not to have been measured locally in this manner. TV stations offer freebies and discounts to compensate and get their share of the pie, though freebies need to be evaluated carefully based on what kind of spots one is getting and where. Media planners use reach & frequency models to optimize effectiveness and return. Now, to what extent marketers and their media planning agencies use the decay curves to optimize their bursts and budgets depends on the sophistication of both. Marketers also see the need to invest in multiple productions and high-impact ones to keep consumers from getting bored with their commercials and maintain entertainment value.

Of course, all this is about what marketers and their agencies can do to make good the one-way communication, which is what the traditional advertising forms are all about. But how many of the commercials and ads that we produce really engage our target audiences? In an era of commercial bombardment and information overload, how effective are we in breaking through the clutter and perceptual blocks for a start, and then influencing consumers with our messages and images to make them show up on our sales curves? One has to be really clever or ‘creative’ to do commercials that make consumers love and want our brands. Being too clever may win awards but make no impact on sales, and this is a danger that ad award contests sometimes bring about. If we are in the one-way mode, do we know whether our commercials have worked – been seen, influenced and moved consumers to love and buy our brands? Only research and the sales curve will tell you.


But moving away from the one-way bombardment model, what the new dictum of engagement tells us is that we need to ‘involve’ i.e. sufficiently engross consumers with our brand and get them to ‘interact’ with it so that they are stimulated in the mind and consequently activated in the heart. Turning products and brands into “lovemarks” this way is what will keep consumers coming back for more, showing the brand off or recommending it to others.

IPTV, when it comes to Sri Lanka soon as promised by SLT, will provide a platform for interactivity between the marketer and his audience. How those possibilities are catered to and used by marketers has yet to be seen.

IPTV : Internet Protocol TV which uses a broadband connection, set top box & TV not only provides flexible and high-definition viewing of TV channels but also interactivity between the network and viewer and several ‘on demand’ services such as additional video-on-demand entertainment. Flexibility is provided through ‘time shift’ or the ability to recall, store and watch broadcast material at a convenient time, possibly skipping commercials. Important to marketers is the interactivity provided by the two-way connection between the service provider and the viewer, which allows assessment of viewing preferences and the ability to make the viewing experience more interactive and personalized. Possibilities of interactive TV include the use of voting and quizzes as well as TV shopping and direct response marketing opportunities.

Till real interactive TV develops, and as even then it will be only for those with broadband access, we need to see what kinds of other TV options and formats may work better than commercials per se. People watch certain kinds of programmes that they like, and the new reality shows are becoming more engrossing than the teledramas. Sponsored and branded programming can keep the audience engaged with your brand for 30 minutes, which is better than 30 seconds! However, having a branded backdrop alone doesn’t have qualitative value as it just jars your brand name and eventually becomes wallpaper. Marketers and agencies need to work with content and programme producers to create programming that personifies the brand and involves the brand’s target audiences through ‘reality show’ or participatory formats. ‘Live’ phone-ins are another mechanism to make TV and radio
shows interactive.

Moving beyond mainstream media like TV and radio, creating brand engagement requires us to identify the various touch-points where the potential consumer could interact with the brand in a positive manner. We need to understand our target consumers’ interests, habits and leisure pursuits and determine which of these provide the opportunity to create branded environments and experiences where the brand becomes an integral and enjoyable part of such experiences. Branded outlets and events are such possibilities but there needs to be commitment and investment to pursue these on an owned, long-term basis rather than as one-offs.

The web, with its social media and blogs, provides us with the ability to interest and interact with our target audiences, provided they have internet access. Computer penetration and internet access locally is still rather low with less than 10% of Sri Lankan home having computers, though penetration is relatively higher in more affluent households (see chart below) and access of the internet may be much higher than official estimates (around 232,00) due to access from cybercafés and offices. ITU estimates 771,700 internet users and 63,300 broadband users as of March 2008. RNCOS, a leading global market research and analysis company, in a recently released report of Sri Lanka’s ICT market, indicates a CAGR of 144% in broadband subscribers during 2001-2007, and a CAGR of 40% in Internet users in the period 2004-2007. The digital frontier would therefore be worth exploring at least for certain brands.

Just creating a blog or a purely commercial blog does not guarantee success, and one needs interesting information, news, activities, networking opportunities and things to see, do and interact to draw visitors to it on a regular basis creating a special interest community. is among the top ten blogs and websites visited by Sri Lankans. (The other 9 include the most visited global sites such as Google, Facebook & YouTube.) Started 2 years ago and billed as the “Largest Sri Lankan On-line Community” it boasts of over 100,000 members and provides members, who can enroll free, with downloads of songs and videos directly from artists and access to a photo gallery, discussions, and articles. Members can also post topics and upload photos, respond to polls, play arcade games and communicate with other members.

These are the challenges of the new media environment to the adventurous and innovative marketer and his creative agency. Media agencies that seek to transcend traditional media need to have creative thinkers who dream up and design such creative interaction and engagement options. A true engagement agency will not be the traditional media or creative agency of old but an innovative creator of experiences and interaction opportunities.

The sooner we question our marketing communication practices and their effectiveness and move from counting and bombarding eyeballs into creating interesting, interactive branded experiences that stimulate our targets’ minds and pull at their heartstrings, the more effective we will be as brand marketers in today’s new and constantly changing world.

Recent Entries

Leave a Reply