A corner of England has been the first to taste interactive TV, in a BT
trial backed by key advertisers. Conor Dignam reports on the lessons
One of the world’s largest trials of interactive television comes to an
end in the suburbs of Ipswich and Colchester this month.
More than 5000 people in 2000 homes have been given a taste of the
television of the future. The year-long trial was funded by BT to help
assess whether people want interactive services via television, how they
will use them, and how much they’re prepared to pay.
The families selected formed a representative sample of the UK. By
giving every person in the household their own pin number to access the
system, BT was able to see exactly who was choosing what. Nine
interactive services were offered, including view-on-demand movies, home
banking and shopping, television programmes, video games, and a
children’s education service.
The first month of the trial and its installation was free, after which
charges were introduced. Movies and computer games proved to be two of
the most popular choices and cost up to pounds 3.99 to access.
The results are crucial to BT’s strategy of pushing into new markets.
They are also commercially sensitive. Viewers taking part were asked to
sign confidentiality agreements. However, one viewer told Marketing how
his family had made use of the service. His wife had bought children’s
clothing from the interactive high street when it held a January sale,
and his six-year-old daughter had become an enthusiastic user of the
But because the family has Sky TV, he found the movies service too
expensive and largely redundant, as the films had already appeared on
satellite, or would shortly.
The ‘on-demand’ movies were far from instantaneous. ‘It doesn’t really
take long, perhaps a couple of minutes, but it seems like a long time
when you’re used to switching channels at the touch of a button.
‘The novelty wore off after a while, and it was certainly less used by
the end of the year. I think the only person in our household who will
seriously miss it when the trial ends is our daughter.’
Advertising in the trial was confined to one area, called Adland. Here
visitors could find interactive sites from 39 advertisers, including
Allied Domecq, Bass, PepsiCo, Norwich Union, Vauxhall, Levi’s and Tango.
Ring-fencing the interactive advertising was a controversial move from
the start. Advertisers felt their ads should be part of the general
programming, rather than a ghetto which viewers rarely visited.
Eyes on the prizes
But the Ipswich viewer says he and his family were regularly lured in by
competitions offering prizes. ‘BT was very interested in what we thought
of Adland. The consensus seemed to be that people would only go in if
they thought they’d get something out of it. Some of the ads never
changed and weren’t very interesting. Once you’d been into them you
didn’t go back.’
In contrast, BT maintains Adland was a success, with 90% of households
going into the site and 35% using it on a regular basis. The data shows
that average visits to Adland lasted for around 20 minutes, during which
viewers visited around three different ads. These figures will help to
calm industry fears that new-age television viewers will choose simply
to exclude advertising from their media mix.
However, some of the advertisers admit that it was an early and
imperfect effort at testing interactive ads. Sharon Carter, marketing
director of Hasbro, says the sports brand’s site had only around 30
interactive responses to the single and unchanging ad it ran.
‘We got a number of enquiries at the beginning of the promotion, but as
the novelty wore off the number of responses fell. We wouldn’t have
known that if we hadn’t tested it.’
Other advertisers who have stressed the interactive and changing nature
of their sites have had more success. Steve Delooze, who headed up
NatWest’s home banking trial on the high street, says it allowed the
bank’s customers to do almost all their banking from their home.
‘We had some people say that if it was a full-time service they would
change their bank to NatWest so they could use it.’ Once again, the
trial was a ‘significant investment’ for NatWest, and included having a
24-hour manned help desk to answer any enquiries from people using the
interactive service. Whether NatWest goes further depends on the results
of its research.
BT also wants time to assess the results before committing itself to
renewing or extending the trial. As long as the consumer remains at the
heart of the marketing push, BT believes interactive television has a
Tim Patten, BT’s head of multi-media advertising services, says the
trial was conducted for the express purpose of gauging which services
would work and which ones were destined to fail.
‘The response has been very positive indeed,’ says Patten. ‘It wasn’t
just a test of television on- demand, but a whole range of services.’
In return for its investment, BT now has a massive database of
information on how different socio-economic groups, ages and genders
will use the service. ‘People have certainly bought into it. It may not
replace existing television, but it’s something that’s going to have a
growing role,’ says Patten.
BT, the viewers of Ipswich and Colchester, and the advertisers have all
learnt from the trial. Patten says a further trial or roll-out of the
system would probably not repeat the experiment of having a separate
‘Adland’, and would integrate the ads with programming.
‘What was notable was that advertisers have to work harder in these
environments,’ says Patten. ‘The consumer has control and if advertisers
don’t give them something that’s entertaining or relevant then they are
going to lose them and they are not going to come back.’ That, for
advertisers, represents both the challenge and the danger of the new age