Streaming culture is transforming brand–audience engagement

culture of streaming

“What are you watching?”

It is a question people ask their friends, family members and colleagues. Between the rise of streaming services and a pandemic that has turned leisure time into screen time, this question has become almost as common as “How are you?” It is a way to get to know someone, learn about their current obsessions and find ways to connect over shared fascinations and new explorations.

Content also inspires relationships. It brings together fan communities via IRL activations and deep Reddit subthreads, where audiences build out narrative worlds in collaborative feats of imagination. 

Today’s audiences are ready to go to great lengths to access the content they love. These passionate fans are extra tuned-in to their favorite shows and the advertisers seeking their attention. And so, advertisers have the opportunity to connect with content lovers in unexpected ways, and even turn them into brand fans by adopting new media planning strategies. 

In a new ViacomCBS report, ‘Culture of Streaming,’ our creative strategy and cultural intelligence team set out to uncover emerging audience behaviors surrounding the streaming wars. When it comes to that evolving streaming landscape, the team found that content is all about personal control. Asynchronous viewing patterns allow people to stream what they want, when they want it — and this has only accelerated during the pandemic year, when 30% of American adults surveyed watched TV while they were supposed to be working from home. 

How that plays into competitive campaigns and positive outcomes for brands, the data shows, revolves around content, identity and the core factor of audiences’ relationships with the shows they watch.

Borderless identities: the confluence of content and identity

The explosion of streaming content, personalized algorithms and accessible media has opened up the gates for identity-driven exploration. This means that audiences are not quite as predictable as media planners might think. In fact, according to the same ViacomCBS report, 41% of the polled American adults say that there is a show, movie or online video they love to watch that even a stranger would find surprising or funny based on the way they perceive the viewer.

Sometimes, love for content can in some ways shift audience identity as well. In the ‘Culture of Streaming’ report, 39% of the surveyed American adults said they have gotten so obsessed with a TV show that they felt like it consumed their whole identity for a period of time. This comes out to roughly 85 million American adults — more than the largest number of votes cast for a single presidential candidate.

Content encourages personal development and comforts

If a good doctor is hard to find, quality content certainly is not. Half of Americans have used a show, movie or online video as a form of therapy, and 25% in the ViacomCBS study say that a show has helped them understand a problem in their life. TV shows can also help people discover new avenues for exploration: 29% say a show inspired them to try a new activity or hobby. In this way, content can be a kind of therapist, companion and teacher.

Content can also fulfill nostalgic needs. Re-watching familiar content is an increasingly popular behavior in a world shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, as repetition and known outcomes can offer much-needed comfort. People amass libraries of comfort content to get through trying times — 55% have a go-to “feel-good show” they watch whenever they want to improve their moods, and 26% rewatch segments so they can experience familiar emotions. 

Intimate screens: Content inspires relationships

Audiences don’t just watch TV shows; they make memes and quote epic lines, comment on threads and follow stories down rabbit holes, finding community through shared references. People are passionate about the shows they watch, and they use the shared language of fandom to connect with strangers — and even strengthen their existing relationships. Nearly a third of Americans have deepened their connection with someone because they were fans of the same show. 

Sometimes, a connection with content itself can become the most important relationship in someone’s life. One out of 10 Americans surveyed in ‘Culture of Streaming’ say that there were times when a show mattered more to them than their friends or family. Content also feeds people back, giving them the always-accessible bond that humans can’t always provide. 

The new rules of media planning

Like streaming media, ads travel through the portals that shape people’s identities and connect their worlds. This changing landscape of streaming content creates new rules for media planning, helping planners bring fans together, inspire self-exploration and connect audiences with the content they love. With those outcomes in mind, media planners are focusing on several key areas:

  • Refocus targeting for borderless identities. Audiences use content to explore their continually-expanding identities, so targeting can no longer be predicted by demographics alone. Coupling an understanding of the audience’s less predictable watching patterns with a mix of broad demo and advanced targeting will create incremental gains in media performance.
  • Connect with quality, culture-defining programming. Americans are watching shows to feel their feelings and improve their lives, but only certain programming has the quality to influence their emotional and cultural journeys. Ad buys that ignore quality will risk missing out on the ROI that comes from being where it counts: in the heart of culture. 
  • All screens, at scale. Audiences are connecting with each other over content in increasingly deep ways and in a staggering number of places. Prioritizing scale across multiple platforms will help planners maximize efficiency and access passionate audiences. 

Taking these approaches, brands and media planners are connecting with audiences in formative moments, thanks to creative ad tools and solutions that provide the targeting to meet audiences where they live and dream. They’re leaning in to the quality content that excites and inspires Americans of all demographics, identities and interests, and reaching for the promise of achieving the scale needed to reach all the touchpoints in a viewer’s content journey.

More from Digiday

Cannes Briefing: Investment bankers and private equity firms turn up en masse — ‘Here to hunt’

Among them are investment banks like JP Morgan and Luma, alongside private equity players like Shamrock Capital, Apollo and a host of others.

Saudi influence over gaming extends far beyond esports

Saudi Arabia wants to become a global gaming hub, but it’s starting to look like it also wants to exert its influence over the worldwide gaming community.

Discord is doing a brand refresh to welcome brands and marketers onto the platform and improve the user experience

The introduction of Discord Quests last month has encouraged publishers to take advantage of the platform’s rise as a marketing channel, whether through officially endorsed Discord Quests or otherwise.