At the risk of emasculating myself, I have to say I have no idea what March Madness is. While I did attend a Big 10 school, I’d always found myself in the arts and sciences buildings, rather than huddled up in the stadiums. From what I’ve gathered in break room chatter over the years, it’s something about college basketball… people have brackets or something?? But this year, as I have done with every year after the Packers season and Super Bowl wrap up, I’ll commit to watching some games and learning a few key rules for the sake of social acceptance. But as the seasons pass, I find myself looking less of a dunce during these sporting events thanks to my personal assistants: Galaxy SII and iPad. No more do I have to ask after every single play, “What just happened?” or “Why’s that guy so angry?” And it’s even easier for me to blend in to the crowd, because I’m not the only one watching his mobile device like a hawk during these televised events. People all around me are watching a second game on a tablet, chatting with friends remotely, and/or looking up rules to argue about!

This multiscreen phenomenon is growing almost in direct proportion to the explosion of mobile connectivity. It’s not a future trend; it’s here. The way we watch television has changed and, for the most part, this behavioral shift developed quite naturally. The sci-fi dreamers who pictured fully interactive televisions on our walls had it wrong – the television is a group display, an impersonal public address device. Smart TVs are cool, but they are really just a personal computer in a TV shaped package. As much as we fight over the remote control when TV content is changing only every half hour, can you imagine how much we’d fight over the keyboard and mouse if the content changed at the speed of the Internet? The Web is a personal experience, and operates best on a personal device, so the most natural method of integrating the two-way communication of the Internet with televised media is to create additional content to be delivered simultaneously, on a personal level, online.

The reason I even mention my complete ignorance of college b-ball in this post is that there’s been a lot of buzz about all the screens March Madness will be lighting up. CBS is selling just as much online advertising as it does television spots and the various sites and apps to watch games streaming online are selling pre-roll and banner ads like crazy. However, while March Madness is being touted as the ultimate example of a two-screen experience, it really seems to be a ‘one-screen-or-the-other’ experience. From what I can tell, most of these alternate screens are being used to watch a second or third game simultaneously. While that does allow for more advertising real estate, does it take full advantage of the interactive device’s capabilities? Who will effectively engage those who are watching one screen, and interacting with another simultaneously?

One sponsor really leveraging the second screen’s capabilities is Capital One. Their Bracket Challenge allows users to create, track and share brackets – which, from what I hear, is something people love to talk about. And since they’ve got people talking online, their Facebook integration makes this a “slam dunk!” (See what I did there?) Coke Zero has launched a Watch & Score SMS program, offering prizes to viewers who text in keywords during commercials. Both of these campaigns keep viewers engaged with valuable content and incentives and leverage the way people interact with the communication medium.

What about the non-fanatics? What about TV that doesn’t have the built-in engagement of March Madness? Let’s back off of the basketball puns for a second and think about the rest of the bigger picture. It’s pretty clear the television is becoming more of a sidebar in the way many of us consume media. We still gather in front of it as it carries on with the messages it wants to show us, but our social nature and hunger for information has our attention sharply divided by the devices in our hands and on our laps. I’d even argue that this behavior of shifting-focus-to-the-nearest-available-content is further encouraged by methods of forcing ads before content, like pre-roll spots or preventing fast-forward on DVR. So what’s a TV advertiser to do?

Change the strategy. We’ve all seen commercials suggesting what people might do while on their second or third device. “Tweet your votes!” “Like Us on Facebook” or even “Scan this QR code.” It’s a decent start, but it’s quite disjointed and very clearly a marketing tactic. Sure, it gets some response, but without real value, users simply don’t want to do work to hear your ads. How about “Shazam this commercial for a free download of the theme song” – a fine example of guiding the customer from TV to their device, into a partner’s app and into a microsite promoting your product. The incentive bridges their attention from the television to their device, sustaining engagement beautifully. Most importantly, the experience is seamless.

Consider those who aren’t going to do what you tell them to do with their second screen. Personally, while ESPN is rolling commercials, I will be frantically checking up on my sporty friends’ Twitter accounts, looking for an intelligent observation to regurgitate when my buddies discuss what just happened in the game. I will not be giving their station or their site any attention whatsoever. That’s where CBS’s Twitter account comes into play. When I’m Googling the difference between a technical foul and a regular one, that’s where intelligent search marketing can run the court. When I’m checking in on Facebook and posting a photo of me and the guys at the sports bar, that’s where sponsored stories in my newsfeed set up the shot. And when that strategic campaign evaluates everything I’ve done online pertaining to the tournament, they just might score by offering me an app that feeds me stats in real-time or offering to sell me a relevant book. This multi-channel and native advertising approach will truly engage me simultaneously on two screens.

So, anyway, I’m going to stop embarrassing myself with my complete lack of basketball knowledge. We’ll pick this up again next week. For now, I’ve got to go find someone’s bracket to copy so I don’t hit this week’s events empty handed. Go Badgers!

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