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Murray Barnett | Social viewing and its benefits for OTT

Murray Barnett, a sports media and commercial expert formerly of F1, World Rugby and ESPN, and director of OTT consultancy D2C Sport, explores the commercial advantages for rights-holders of adding co-viewing functionality to their sports streaming services

Murray Barnett

If the Euros taught us anything, it’s how much we have missed worshipping together at the altar of sport. The social experience is not exclusively at the stadiums but at bars, pubs, and homes across Europe and around the world. The younger generations have embraced social viewing for a long time but with their own twist – it’s not in the same room or stadium but online and virtual. And they feel it as much as those who are (physically) together.

According to a recent YPulse survey, a whopping 69 per cent of individuals in the 13-to-37 demographic agreed with the statement “I don’t need to watch sports games live.” Other polls show live TV viewing in this demographic is down from a high of 86 per cent just a few years ago to just 65 per cent in 2019 (and dropping). This isn’t the death knell for live sport viewing, it’s a reflection of the changing nature of consumption. It is also a challenge to rights-holders to update the live viewing experience to match the expectations of younger generations. Searching for ways to synthesise the live experience with the habits of younger generations has given rise to social or co-viewing, a natural fit for OTT.

They have been choosing to socialise online as opposed to meeting up in real life, as organising an online ‘viewing experience’ is much easier than meeting in person. Co-viewing started in live-stream gaming platforms like Twitch. The ability to communicate with like-minded individuals and friends in real time, appeals to Millennials and Gen Z’ers. It is also a natural fit for “appointment-to-view” events such as sport. Adopting a co-viewing strategy has tremendous potential for growing sports engagement in these hard-to-reach demographics.

But “watch together” functionality by itself is not enough. They are looking for more from their live viewing experience. In addition to watching and talking to friends at the same time, they are also seeking out additional information on weather, stats, historical data, listening to music and gaming all at the same time. Anyone with teenagers will have seen the amount of dual and triple screening going on. YPulse points out, nearly 80 per cent of viewers in the 13-to-37 demographic are using multiple screens while watching a live sports event. Increased OTT functionality, reducing friction, removes the need to go ‘off platform’. Keeping viewers within the eco-system increases value.

Turbo charged by global quarantining, the powerhouses in the sports and entertainment business have been developing a variety of products to harness these new consumption patterns. Disney+ have developed “Group Watch” and Amazon have “Watch Party”. Facebook Portal, the video chat service, can be used for Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, suggesting co-viewing options are coming there as well.

In the sports media world, many OTT services now have added this type of functionality. For example, watch together is available as part of the new BT Sport matchday experience and Eleven Belgium has also launched a similar function with its recent purchase of Belgian League football. Most claim these have been successful in terms of usage, but a post-pandemic period will be needed to ascertain the true level of engagement. What is clear is they are valued by consumers even if research from some OTT aggregators suggests they are not used frequently. There is also a feeling that they will take some time to bed in with viewers.

The functionality of these native co-viewing services ranges from simplistic to very sophisticated. There is live texting, video chat, polls, social media integration, public/private chat rooms and Emojis. Some are tiered offerings with ‘free’ versions being ad-supported. Additionally, third parties are providing plug-ins to increase the usability of these services.

One interesting trend in this space is user-generated content. The rise of reaction content, first embraced by the music business, is a natural application for sports. We have all seen the reaction of ex-player pundits in the TV studio when their team has won. Imagine being able to do that as a co-viewing experience, with fans or even with personalities. Watching other people react to a piece of content they enjoy is an indirect way of seeking connections and validation. These in turn can be monetised as unique experiences. We talked recently to a Premier League club which told us their number 1 content strand on their OTT service was audio commentary with a famous ex-player. Imagine that with video. Think of Ian Wright watching Arsenal in the Cup Final with you.

Co-viewing can also offer some unique opportunities for brand partners. Exclusive opportunities to interact with brand ambassadors or unique behind-the-scenes content brings the brand closer to the fans. It can be a fun and innovative way for any consumer-facing brands to create branded content, build communities, and increase brand affinity.

Perhaps most importantly, co-viewing is a powerful tool for collecting granular audience feedback for better audience insights. Already sports are using fairly rudimentary fan polls provided by the likes of Goodform. Using the real-time analytics and sentiment analysis from co-viewing and monitoring the social interactions can provide incredible depth of knowledge and understanding to rights-owners. This in turn informs additional functionality as well as data to optimise direct-to-consumer strategies.

The social viewing capability offered by OTT is another unique benefit for consumers and added value for rights-holders. This alone doesn’t make OTT a replacement (yet) for traditional third-party broadcaster relationships. Social viewing is still very much a niche product but an attractive feature for OTT services. What is apparent is in the quest to engage with younger demographics, this kind of functionality will be increasingly important. By building a direct, truly customised, and interactive relationship with consumers (via OTT), rights-holders can be in the enviable position of really understanding their audiences and can use this to completely reinvigorate their commercial business strategies.

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