For those that have been involved in interactive television for over a decade, many of the principles learnt can be applied to the challenges of delivering television and video services across different types of screen. Professor Duane Varan is the director of Audience Labs, formerly the Interactive Television Research Institute, at Murdoch University in Perth and the chief research officer of the Disney Media and Advertising Labs in the United States. At the Connected Entertainment conference in Melbourne, he shared five insights into the connected consumer. Among them was the conclusion that despite evidence of media multitasking among consumers, people are generally unable to process more than one message at once.

The first insight Professor Varan presented is that all screens are equal, in the eyes of the viewer, who will generally adjust the viewing distance to produce a comfortable viewing angle that is similar. He noted that a screen smaller than 3.5 inches has to be held at a distance that becomes uncomfortable to maintain over time. Otherwise, as far as the viewer is concerned, his extensive research over a decade or more consistently suggests the impact of advertising is independent of screen size. “Whatever screen you are talking about, you can assume equal effect as long as the content is the same.”

The second comment is that contrary to some assumptions, there is not necessarily any synergy produced through multiple advertising impacts across different platforms. Consumers do not turn to different devices randomly. They approach different screen sizes with different need states. These should be taken into account in advertising strategies for on-demand media. Therefore he recommended optimising the content for a particular platform in order to optimise the effect and impact.

The third conclusion is the result of testing different advertising patterns and loads — the number of breaks in a programme and the number of adverts per break. Limited interruption, with one advert per break, without repetition, understandably has the most impact. Repeated presentation of the same advert in each break does not appear to improve impact and presumably risks irritation. “You have effectively communicated the first time, so you’re not getting added value with repeated exposures.” He suggested that six breaks with a single advert in each are less intrusive than two breaks with multiple adverts.

The fourth observation is that offering interactivity can significantly increase impact. This goes back to early experience with interactive television advertising, a dozen years previously. “Choice is powerful in and of itself.” So allowing a user to choose an advert, a model that has been adopted by Hulu and elsewhere, can increase impact, because the investment of the viewer through that choice is increased. “The reason this is so powerful is the minute they make a decision, suddenly they want to be right so they are searching for cues to reinforce the decision they made was right.” But he warns: “If the viewer is disappointed you have alienated them because they have ego invested in that failure.” As a general rule, he suggested: “One interactive exposure delivers an impact roughly equal to three linear exposures.” He also suggested that a single interactive exposure is optimal. As a result, “your objective is no longer about frequency; it’s all about reach.”

The fifth finding is that while people are increasingly consuming media content simultaneously across different devices, “people cannot effectively multitask.” Most people are cognitively incapable of giving two screens their full attention, irrespective of age or gender. “This is a human limitation.” However, if there is something similar on both screens, such as a synchronised banner on the second screen, it seems people are more able to cope. This is a principle he calls a “cognitive bridge” such as a visual device that links both screens in some way. “If you create that cognitive bridge, people can suddenly simultaneously process both streams of information.”

Despite all the talk about new models of media delivery there is still comparatively little academic research into the cognitive aspects of human perception. The research led by Professor Varan demonstrates that there is still much to be gained from rigorously testing assumptions about how the impact and effectiveness of different advertising models.