Guest Blog: Viewer Engagement Depends on the 'Love Quotient'

Viewing parties now happen on social media, which makes gauging emotional response to programs even more crucial

You've likely attended your share of viewing parties over the years, where friends gather to collectively learn about Lucious Lyon's future at Empire Entertainment or Jon Snow's fate on Game of Thrones. But garnering levels of viewer engagement strong enough to trigger these types of in-person gatherings has become increasingly difficult for programmers.

In today's entertainment landscape with many more shows, networks, and platforms to choose from, not to mention the freedom to watch anything at any time, connecting with viewers is challenging to say the least. This has inspired networks to try new things such as last Sunday night's live Passion on Fox—sometimes resulting in a ratings juggernaut, and sometimes not.

Coherency, a market research and insights firm, works with a number of broadcast, cable and premium networks to assess and increase viewer engagement, or love, for the network and its series. We've introduced the industry's first quantitative, emotion-based research methodology — the “love quotient,” which allows us to pinpoint why consumers do or do not love a show and/or network. It also offers insight into specific elements pertaining to the storylines, characters, network positioning and much more so that networks can try to increase that love.

This need to deepen the emotional connection becomes even more important as the relationship between consumer and TV continues to evolve. The changing competitive environment is significantly upping the ante for commercial broadcasters and making it increasingly difficult for viewers to keep up with all that's available.  

With scripted shows, for example, meeting baseline viewer expectations now requires higher budgets, an A-List celebrity cast, as well as Hollywood-grade screenwriters and sets. Also, streaming services are altering viewer behavior. With easy access to same-day full-season releases of shows devoid of advertising, viewers consume entire seasons of House of Cards on Netflix or Da Vinci's Demons on Starz as though they're watching a 10-hour “mega” movie—essentially introducing an entirely new genre to the equation. There's also “time shifting” enabled by DVRs and on-demand that's altering the parameters of audience measurement.

What can networks do to create a greater viewer engagement with their programming?  The key lies in understanding viewers on a deep, emotional level and delivering programs that fulfill those needs. Our research for major networks proves that stronger emotional ties between viewers and TV entertainment influence desired behaviors from following the series on social media to participating in those elusive viewing parties.

Unfortunately, traditional market research for television hasn't been able to effectively capture and analyze emotional data with a broad range and number of respondents to quantify the findings. Furthermore, methods such as dial-testing are limiting. As soon as you ask viewers to respond to an emotional question with a rational action like turning a dial, their consciousness kicks in and triggers rational thinking, rendering them unable to provide pure subconscious emotional responses.

While results from these methodologies do yield emotional feedback, industry executives, producers and creative teams are often reluctant to make multi-million dollar decisions based on relatively small samples of qualitative data.

Our research methods employing interactive online surveying tools can capture and analyze emotional data from a large number of respondents. By applying Human Relationship Science algorithms similar to those utilized by online matchmaking sites, the resulting quantitative results are deeper and have proven to predict  viewer engagement and behaviors like holding viewing parties, binge watching, live viewing and talking about a show on social media with 70 to 80 percent accuracy.

Tapping into emotions - from program development to overall brand strategy

So how can networks put such emotional information to use?

1. Pilot testing – Before sinking millions into full-series production, producers can accurately gauge and predict viewer responses by tapping into their underlying subconscious emotions. Does the show concept connect with viewers and provoke strong feelings? Which characters in particular does the audience respond to? How do the viewers feel about the story plot? The results inform creative changes, as well as marketing decisions to properly kick-off and maximize the show's potential.

2. Series maintenance – Even with successful shows networks often need to evaluate the series to strengthen viewer engagement. This may call for tweaking the show to deepen the connection with existing viewers while hopefully also inspiring new viewers to tune in. Which couples deserve more screen time because they embody viewers' dreams of the perfect relationship? What big storyline receives a huge emotional response indicating it can evolve into a marketing event?

For one client, we surfaced that viewer disdain for the villain went beyond the normal love/hate for the antagonist. Instead, the lack of viewer connection to the villain stemmed from the one dimension nature of the character. Viewers expressed a desire to understand the values (or lack thereof) and motivations behind the character to connect, even in a “negative” way, with the villain.  

3. Network branding - Networks are also using this new quantitative emotional research to analyze, understand and improve their own brands. Brand differentiation, especially among cable networks, is increasingly important to break through the seemingly endless a la carte entertainment menu from dozens of content providers. To build a loyal audience and standout in this competitive market, a network needs to have a clear identity – think Bravo, HGTV and ID network, among others. A network's brand and program line up should be aligned so a viewer knows what to expect. From an emotional perspective, if viewers personally feel compatible with a network it's a strong sign they'll be longer-term viewers and exhibit greater loyalty.

This will be increasingly important as streaming becomes more popular and populated. Consumers are starting to ditch expensive, “pre-loaded” cable boxes as they are empowered to choose which networks they want to “allow” into their living room. Having a brand identity that appeals consistently to a strong demographic will help networks make the cut. And this, of course, ultimately impacts advertising rates and sales.

Fortunately, the ability to capture, analyze and benefit from consumer data has reached a new level. So whether your cast is doing battle with white walkers or Mimi Whiteman, you can make an emotional connection with viewers like never before and likely predict “viewing party” success!

Steve Markov is president and managing partner of Coherency (previously Chatter Inc.), a marketing insights and strategy agency expert in deciphering the emotional and rational drivers of consumer behavior.