Bandersnatch, the latest episode of Netflix’s ‘Black Mirror’ which was put out over Christmas, recevied a huge amount ofattention on social media for its ‘choose your own adventure’ format, which allows viewers to direct the story by making decisions that determine the path of the main character.
However, in spite of the hype, Bandersnatch was far from groundbreaking. Interactive storytelling has been a feature of narrative-driven for years, and even Netflix itself had already tested the technology and format on smaller scale projects. But Bandersnatch is perhaps the first example of interactive storytelling at scale in mainstream TV content, and its popularity (measured only by social media attention and press coverage, as Netflix hasn’t released viewing figures) suggests that there might be more scope for ‘branching’ storytelling.
Eddie Tomalin from WIREWAX, a video tech company which creates interactive elements for brands and content owners, says that what’s significant about Bandersnatch is how it’s taking interactivity to the mass market. “The fact that they’ve embarked on a two year campaign to create one episode is testament to the value they perceive interactivity to have,” he said.
Interactvity has of course been a feature of online advertising to varying degrees for years now. Some formats also have parralels with Bandersnatch and allow users to choose their own ad experience from a few different options. Wirewax has worked on a number of projects which use this tech, recently in campaigns for Johnny English, Apartment Therapy and Google/Walmart.
Tomalin sees interactivity as its ability boosts engagement in comparison to regular video ads. “On platforms like Youtube, people never replay ads, they never watch stuff back, they just want to go straight to their unboxing video!” he said. “But we find from our campaign data that frequently people will spend three times as long watching interactive content, and we also see a 32 percent increase in memorability across the board compared to standard ads.”
Interactivity can throw up some useful new metrics for advertisers too, as users’ interactions can be tracked, and brands can gauge how many people are delving deeper to explore all the ad’s content.
Tomalin also sees an interesting possibility for brands within interactive TV content, as demonstrated in Bandersnatch. “When I saw that first scene where the first decision made was whether you wanted Frosties or Sugar Puffs for breakfast, I thought ‘oh no, they’ve gone rogue with this, how many brands have paid to have their product in this episode!’ But they didn’t include any more placements, and it allowed the world to see a new way of understanding two different product placements in that environment.” He speculates that in the future, there could also be potential for branching technology to be used to swap product placements in and out of TV content on the fly, allowing them to be traded programmatically.
High Investment Costs
But even if the technology exists to deliver more interactive advertising, there are still high costs on the content side when it comes to more complex projects. Jonathan Lewis, global head of Teads Studio, said his eyes were opened to these costs while working on an interactive campaign with Bupa in 2016.
Lewis says the video required around 75 different bits of video content to be created, with around 175-180 different permutations for what the user would see depending on which options they chose. This obviously costs a lot more to produce than a straightforward fifteen or thirty second ad.
“We’ve had many conversations since the Bupa campaign with brands who want to get involved with interactivity, but the complexity and the amount of content involved tends to push them away, or at least make them wary,” said Lewis.
Some advertisers may try to avoid this problem by just repurposing existing ads for an interactive campaign, but at a cost to performance. Tomalin added, “One of the common problems we come across is with very big brands who have the money and want to do interactive, but they’ve already shot their ten million dollar ad with celebrity X,” he said. “So they’ve got that thirty second ad slot, and maybe some B-roll lying around, but the interactive story was never there. Without that, the experience is a little bit flawed.”
Another problem is getting users to interact with the content in the first place, particularly in fast-scrolling environments like social media platforms. Lewis pointed out that complex, interactive ads in some way run counter to current efforts cater to short attention spans. “It’s totally the other end of the spectrum from the push towards six or two second advertising,” he said. “They’re two completely different messages that you’re trying to push to brands.”
How to Make an Interactive Campaign Work
These problems aren’t insurmountable, but suggest that advertisers should first question the value that interactivity would add to their campaigns before diving in headfirst.
Firstly, Lewis and Tomalin both agreed that interactive campaigns work best when interactivity is integrated from the very beginning, rather than an afterthought, with content specifically for interactive experiences.
Tomalin however believes it is possible to recycle footage if it’s done correctly. “We’ve worked with clients who have taken an ad from earlier in the year, and added in the ‘bonus ‘content, the sort of stuff you used to find on disc 2 for a movie DVD. The interactivity then lets the more engaged viewers dive deeper into the ad.”
Advertisers should also take into consideration where their ad is going to appear. As mentioned above, fast-scrolling social feeds might not be best for engagement. “From a Teads perspective, we’re fortunate that we’re placing ads in the middle of premium written content,” said Lewis. “The scroll is still pretty fast, but it’s a lot slower than a social environment, so you have a bigger opportunity to catch attention.”
Lewis also pointed out that the device the ad is shown on is important. On TV for example, you should account for the fact that multiple people might be viewing in a given living room, raising the question of who is likely to be the person actually engaging with the ad. Mobile formats and the associated data limitations on mobile meanwhile are less well equipped to handle complex branching involving more than two options for each choice.
Finally, advertisers should focus on drawing audiences into their interactive experience in the first place. “I think in order to capture attention, the first frame needs to be static, and the message needs to be clear around what the brand is and what you’re trying to do,” said Lewis.
With all these things considered, interactivity still won’t necessarily be for everyone. “I don’t think lots of TV content is necessarily going to suddenly become interactive after Bandersnatch, and in the same way this type of storytelling brands is still quite nascent and niche, and in my mind will remain so,” said Lewis.
But it certainly looks like branching storytelling provides a very interesting opportunity for brands willing to take it seriously, and while costs can be high for complex pieces of content, this can be mitigated if it’s used beyond the running of the campaign. “I think it has to have a life and a purpose beyond the advertising slot, it has to live on a dot com or has to be part of a microsite alongside being used as an ad,” said Lewis.