'This Is Us' (Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

How Networks Can Leverage Digital Campaigns to Keep Ratings Strong in the Cord Cutting Age

As shows return this fall, there’s no guarantee they will attract the same ratings the second time around

The second season of NBC’s hit show This Is Us is back following its summer hiatus. While the show enjoyed solid ratings in its first season, there’s no guarantee it will attract the same level the second time around. This is an ongoing challenge TV marketers face as programs go on production hiatus and re-emerge to face stiff competition from adversaries old and new. To reignite their audience base, networks develop concentrated marketing strategies to drive saturation leading up to their season premieres. The biggest obstacle: creating the urgency on a mass scale to generate ratings momentum at the premiere that will carry through the season.

An OTT channel such as Netflix takes a markedly different approach than a broadcast network. Its inclination is to promote similar or related programs to viewers while one of their favorite shows is on hiatus. Much like Amazon recommends similar items to the ones being viewed, or related items to those already purchased, Netflix promotes programs with similar appeal alongside viewers’ favorites to keep them “in network” and regularly tuning in. The channel keeps this cycle going by cross-promoting the original program when it returns for another season.

The key to executing this approach lies within the individual’s subscription, which enables OTT channels and some cable networks to fine-tune their messages based on his or her consumption habits. A perfect example of how networks leverage this information is through the notifications you see on your phone about a new show. If Netflix knows you like Stranger Things, it can determine whether or not to promote The OA, knowing there’s a good chance it’ll appeal to you. This is the power of digital viewership: the ability to personalize an experience and show subscribers they understand their preferences.

Ad-supported networks like NBC face a more significant challenge in personalizing that user experience. For a show like This is Us, which landed NBC the top scripted-series spot for the 2016-17 season in total viewers (for the first time in nearly 13 years), the broadcast network will have to rely on the show’s emotional appeal to get people reenergized about the program as season two approaches. The show’s cast and creator have already teased dramatic scenes, which has been promoted on digital channels.

Ultimately, however, NBC and all ad-supported networks must boost their existing efforts through complementary digital campaigns if they are to compete against OTT channels and the evolving consumption habits of today’s viewers. The networks can’t do it alone—among other things, it requires access to set-top box data and the ability to reach viewers online and at scale—but doing so will enable them to drive TV tune-in, reengage lapsed viewers and message viewers who have yet to see a particular show. The latter point especially—engaging lapsed and non-viewers—requires networks to snare viewers with relevant messages outside of the network’s online property.

Access to set-top box data is only part of the equation, however. In order to activate that data online, networks must also work with the right digital media partner to ensure their content is being seen by the right audiences across multiple screens. What’s more, working with the right digital media partner can provide the insight and the capability to reach individuals at scale with a steady stream of content and evolve that content over time, just as you would any personal relationship or conversation. It’s up to you to remove luck (someone finding their way to your show) from the equation. It also makes the promotion of previous seasons almost as important a mission.

If This is Us attracts a similar or better audience than its first season, NBC will need to develop a long-tail strategy, similar to that of Game of Thrones, HBO’s biggest hit in years. Game of Thrones has done an excellent job of using the show’s rich and abundant content in the digital sphere to keep viewers engaged even during its long production hiatuses. Whether it’s direct promotional material from the show itself, real-life media (like interviews with the show’s cast), or program-related merchandise, HBO has effectively extended the world of the show into viewers’ everyday lives. By the time a new season premieres, there’s so much hype around the show that the premiere almost serves as a holiday for loyal fans.

Whether you’re a broadcast network, basic cable service or a premium network like HBO, it’s imperative to establish a good cadence when teasing your content. Too little and you risk missing a new or casual viewer. Too much and you risk turning off someone who’s on the fence. To keep viewers engaged and excited about a show’s upcoming season, it’s important to provide loyal and potential viewers with fresh content regularly that is orchestrated across all appropriate channels. This doesn’t mean giving away storylines entirely, but rather, it is using all of the assets you have in your arsenal and rolling them out strategically to keep them coming back for more.