Do you suffer from ‘screenesthesia’?

Brainsights' Kevin Keane explains what happens when you ignore the context in which your content appears.


By Kevin Keane

“This ad tested well. Why isn’t it working on Facebook?”
“We A/B tested this on Youtube, and it worked well, but it’s tanking on TV. Why?”
“Why are only half of our YouTube video ads working?”

If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, you may suffer from “screenesthesia.”

Screenesthesia is a term my team coined to describe a pervasive condition in marketing, where content creators fail to distinguish between screens and contexts when creating and distributing content. Symptoms include placing video built for TV on mobile platforms, or creating content not fit for specific screen-based placements (like a social feed or pre-roll).

While screenesthesia may sound benign, it can wreak considerable damage: brands lose faith in video effectiveness, video media suppliers and their agency partners. Media blames creative (and vice versa), while both blame the media supplier for poor performance, as well as the research companies for their traditional methodologies.

But more critically, screenesthesia means multi-screening consumers are faced with disjointed brand communications, which risks stunting brand development.

Take the case of our partnership with CIBC. Brainsights analyzed the brand’s video communications across TV, laptop and mobile screens. When we examined the assets at the moment-by-moment neural level of audiences, we found that their communications were optimized to perform on TV and mobile, but were soft for laptop.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this scenario; for many brands, this would be optimal. However, in financial services, laptop/desktop is a vital screen: it’s used for long-term planning, work and other task-oriented activities. It lends itself to action and information-based messaging. In other words, it’s a device – and a context – that primes audiences for the solutions that financial products provide.

But the bank’s ads weren’t optimizing for this context and device, so those ads served on laptop and desktop weren’t having the impact they could. And the performance delta was significant – akin to the difference between a top-performing and average ad.

With the aid of Brainsights’ measurement platform and screen rules, new knowledge was surfaced for the brand as to how to improve performance on this critical screen, and is being actively integrated into campaigns going forward. This involved making small production edits to ensure consumers on laptops were served screen-appropriate communications, which included more information-rich components (eg, voice-overs and text on screen) and confirmed the need to revisit pacing and the role of humour (jokes that play well in the more social environments of TV, but are soft in laptop environments).

People process content in different ways depending on environment and context. There are physical environments (home, office, on-the-go), screen environments (TV, mobile), as well as platform and content-related environments (YouTube, live sports). Each one has a profound effect on how we process content. But those with screenesthesia ignores this – the same piece of video content is distributed across all contexts, leading to underperforming ads and diminished brand communications.

So, how can brands inoculate against screenesthesia? First, you can understand that this isn’t a media or a creative problem – it’s both. It’s futile for an asset to be created without the context in mind, or context to be selected without an asset fit for that context. Brands must encourage this media-creative integrative thinking.

Screen Rules - High Res

Second, acknowledge that the industry’s old rules of thumb aren’t fit for purpose. The original rules for storytelling were built primarily in the era of TV supremacy and have mostly not adapted to the emergence of mobile and the proliferation of video platforms. Television can handle substantially more visual complexity (sweeping landscapes, rapid montages, etc) than other screens; desktops excel at communicating information-based messaging; and mobile demands focused attention.

It’s important to leverage these new screen rules – consumers are re-wiring, and so should our best practices.

Kevin Keane is the co-founder and CEO of Brainsights, a business insights company that measures response to content using brain-scanning technology.