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In streaming, is who’s watching as valuable to advertisers as how many?

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Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

It’s official: Suits — which originally aired from 2011 to 2019 on the USA Network — was the most watched series on streaming in the U.S. in 2023.

The show, available on Netflix and Peacock, topped the list of titles on Nielsen’s recent report disclosing the top streaming programs of the year. Originals like Disney+’s The Mandalorian and acquired titles like Max’s Friends also saw big numbers.

Additionally, Netflix released a report in December that shared global hours viewed for nearly its entire library over a six-month period, its most comprehensive breakdown yet of viewership. And studios agreed to greater data transparency as part of the deal following the Hollywood writers’ strike.

Viewership data like this is enticing to advertisers who got used to a steady diet of demographic stats on linear TV. Now that audiences are flocking to streaming, marketers are following suit, and they need data to predict and measure campaign success. But even as more streaming viewership numbers become available, advertisers may want to consider that “who” they’re reaching might be just as valuable as “how many.”

Marketers are increasingly attuned to getting their messages in front of the right people — those likely to buy their product and buy into their brand. Understanding who is watching is the puzzle piece they have been waiting for.

That’s where some industry experts say CTV has a chance to evolve beyond the linear model, which has typically operated on an upfront advertising schedule in which networks sell and guarantee inventory months in advance against broad-stroke demographic audience segments.

“Advertisers need to realize that viewership on a particular program might reach tens of millions of viewers, but who are you actually reaching when you put an ad in front of them? Is that the clientele that you need to reach in order to be successful selling your product?” says Seth Mittman, VP of integrated strategy at Ampersand. “There is opportunity in testing multiple tactics and strategies to be able to figure out what works for your brand.”

Streaming has the flexibility to leverage programmatic advertising, or real-time targeting and bidding based on a viewer’s nuanced habits and interests.

“With connected TV, it’s more of a pinpoint. You might get different ads than what I get, and it’s more trackable.”

Dan Larkman, founder and CEO, Keynes Digital

Programmatic is “audience-first but also outcome based,” says Dan Larkman, founder and CEO of Keynes Digital. “[Advertisers] can find high-intent users, their interests, where they’ve visited, those types of variables, and can target to the other devices to see if they make a conversion, and then optimize for other people that act like that individual.”

Sure, at a time when there are so many streaming services available, audience fragmentation might be a concern for advertisers, even if more services start revealing attractive viewership figures. The knowledge that an ad is going to get in front of a certain amount of people at a certain time on traditional linear TV might be comforting.

But as Larkman puts it, “We’re in a world where linear networks know roughly who’s watching their shows, but only generic things about them. They don’t know specific things.”

He adds, “With connected TV, it’s more of a pinpoint. You might get different ads than what I get, and it’s more trackable.”

Getting granular with viewer data

Let’s say a consumer cancels one subscription and jumps to another; that user doesn’t just disappear. A brand that’s found success converting viewers into customers with advertising on the first streaming platform might want to get in front of them again on the next one.

Take this example: Heartland — among the biggest streaming shows in 2023 on that Nielsen list — streams on both Hulu and Peacock. If a subscriber cancels one service for another, but continues to watch the show, it might be worthwhile for advertisers to engage with those fans across platforms. Creating a connection between content and brand could create a more loyal consumer, and implementing a programmatic strategy can help with that.

Of course, viewership numbers are still important. When NBCUniversal announced that 23 million viewers watched Peacock’s recent exclusive NFL playoff game, it was a big deal. In fact, Larkman posits that live sports are a big factor in why some people might have so many subscriptions; Netflix just landed the rights to WWE’s Raw, Peacock carried more than one exclusive NFL game this season, Amazon and Apple have secured sports rights, and so on.

It’s clear that sports content is valuable to the streaming industry and to consumers. If advertisers can zero in on the streaming sports fan, it could be to their benefit in the long run.

“If you’re able to find an audience that works for you and an audience that you know is your real target that’s going to purchase whatever your product is, following them wherever they go is the best way to do that,” Mittman says.