One of the key indicators that a scene in a show happened in the “olden days” is the presence of a large boxy screen with grainy images. If you are too young to remember (or even know), television was the single means of viewing at home. Household members would check the schedule of shows on their TV guide, arrive at a consensus on what to watch, and gather around their TV set.

In the present day, screens are shrinking, and competition among viewing platforms is expanding.  Even the screen-to-user ratio has flipped; from TV’s around three viewers per TV set to one user accessing multiple devices.

We only have to look at the numbers of the leading video content players to understand the explosive growth of the industry. Globally, consumers watch over one billion hours of YouTube videos daily. Netflix, which started out as a DVD rental and sales site, is now available in over 190 countries with over 167 million paid memberships.

At the turn of the decade, as more video services are introduced, battles are being fought on the grounds of who has the better content catalogue, and which company has distribution rights to the most coveted shows. Netflix has focused on producing their own content as Disney and HBO launched competing services. YouTube also launched a channel that houses their original series, movies, and events. Additionally, the move from licensing to producing content is not just among global players; regional services in Asia such as Viu and iflix are latching on making local shows.

Amidst this content war, an unlikely challenger seems to be posing a threat to these players. Competing on a different ground, Chinese social and video-sharing platform TikTok, has significantly grown globally in terms of popularity and usage in the past year.

A look into the platform’s strategy shows how understanding their consumers’ preferences and behaviors paved the way for their rapid growth. Here is how brands can capitalise on consumers shifts to drive growth.

1. Seeking a shared experience

TV provided an avenue both for entertainment and shared experiences. Nowadays, as consumers still seek for similar rewards, the platform for these have split into two different categories – online viewing services and social media.  

TikTok, at its core, is also a social network. Access to it is free; you are not required to give any information about yourself, nor are you expected to tell them who your connections are. Engaging with others is easy and encouraged through “response” videos or “duets” where users can duplicate videos and include themselves alongside. Engaging activities such as dare-like challenges and dance memes are also abundant.

YouTube, which has an offering closer to TikTok, has YouTube Live, which allows content creators to reach their audiences in real time. This can be done through streaming a video game or hosting a live Q&A. Netflix Party, a browser extension, also grew in popularity because of the recent coronavirus outbreak as it enables multiple users to watch a TV show or movie together.

Although other platforms have attempted to create shared experiences, TikTok is providing the closest simulation of it online.

2. Navigating the paradox of choice

Technological improvements enabled access to an unprecedented quantity and variety of content.  In an interesting study pioneered by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, they found out that having an overwhelming amount of options can create an experience called “The Paradox of Choice”. It explains how the initial excitement of having plenty of choices can be followed by paralysis and eventual dread that the right decision is not being made. This results to lower overall satisfaction.

Upon opening Netflix, you get a preview of trending shows as well as personalised recommendations. The platform reinforces that your subscription is worth it by making you feel you have access to a large catalogue. YouTube, on the other hand, highlights the most relevant categories and immediately shows you two to three video suggestions.

While TikTok has a "Discover" tab, its home page shows a vertical layout that occupies the entire screen, and limits users’ options to either “watch” or “swipe down”. The app simplifies their decision-making process on what to view or even what to post, resulting in a continuous stream of content. Instead of showing videos by popular franchises or creators, individualised feeds show content based on what users like.

As people get paralysed with the abundance of options, the dread that comes after making a choice is not as significant when using TikTok.

After all, watching a 15-second video does not feel like a big commitment compared to a 40-minute show. This leads to our final point.

3. Decreasing attention span

More than just being overwhelming, the amount of content produced is also affecting our attention span. In 2019, another study published in Nature Communications discusses how our collective attention span is narrowing due to information overload. Today, things become popular and disappear out of public view at an accelerating pace, making it harder to dwell on any topic deeply.

TikTok is currently the leading short-form video platform. It has mainly 15-second videos, and users are able to connect clips together for up to 60-seconds recording time.

Comparing it to other services, content creators on YouTube are incentivised to post longer videos. Once they are past the 10-minute mark, they are allowed to insert ads; more ads mean higher revenue. On Netflix, when we look at the length of time it takes to finish two of their most popular shows, Stranger Things and Black Mirror , they take at least 21 hours each.

4. Preparing for the future of viewing

One can argue that all these platforms fulfill different needs: TV offers an immersive and trusted environment for connection; on-demand services like Netflix provide opportunities to binge-watch and delve into long-tail content; accessing YouTube is more objective-based; and short-form videos help fill gaps throughout the day. It is important to note, however, that competing services are already starting to prepare for the scenario that short-form videos grow at their expense. In APAC, iflix has partnered up with TikTok to show bite-sized viral videos from TikTok users globally to all iflix users.

While having varied formats for their viewing needs is a positive thing for consumers, it is challenging for brands that want to reach them. In navigating this current landscape, having a clear understanding of users’ behaviour and the context of their consumption are essential. Moreover, brands must be responsive in aligning consumer shifts with the strengths of each platform since only time will tell which services will become mainstays. We just have to keep watching.

The writer is Justine Guerrero, strategy manager APAC at M&C Saatchi Performance.

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