Digital marketers know the power of multi-screen experiences. Here, the goal is to drive audience engagement with complementary content delivered across TV, tablet and smartphone. Often, this enriches the overall consumer experience. For example, when a tablet plays second screen to the TV, it’s following a natural usage pattern—and brings a powerful interactive element to a passive medium.
But what happens when the addition of a device becomes like the smartphone at the dinner table? What happens when its presence dilutes the primary experience, driving us apart, rather than bringing us together?
That’s the challenge faced by professional sport franchises as they walk the line between embracing digital media and recognizing the dilutive effect it can have on the in-person experience.
If you read this Sunday’s New York Times, you might conclude that that the rise of digital will be the undoing of the simple and sublime—that our device-centric obsessions will forever change what it means to share in-person experiences like a ball game.
In the Times example, we follow the Brooklyn Nets’ effort to wire the Barclays Center to provide—in an ironic twist—the sort of rich digital experiences found in the average suburban living room. It turns out that the typical living room is often a better place to watch a game—better view of the field, better comfort, and, by a wide margin, better economics.
So, what keeps fans coming back after enduring the traffic, lines, and the sticker shock of fee-loaded tickets and twelve-dollar hot dogs? According to the Times article, it’s a sort of communion—the shared human experience of an anonymous crowd drawn closer by an exceptional play or through shameless participation in the illusion of a human wave. Can this sort of thing be replicated online?
Perhaps the better question for professional sports franchises is: Can this sort of thing be sustained in person in the age of digital distractions? How do you commune when your nose is buried in a mobile device? And where do you put the darn thing when it’s your turn to lift the wave’s crest?
As I was making this argument, a colleague reminded me that I was dangerously close to normative judgment when I suggest that the offline in-person experience was somehow inherently better than the digitally-augmented version of the same. He was right. I was reacting to my strong cultural associations with live sports, live music and any other in-person experience that benefit, in my view, from collective engagement. Here, it’s about the intimacy (not the wisdom) of crowds.
Of course, we’re not putting the genie back in the bottle; like it or not, audience attention is now forever divided. We may be together, but we’re really, to cite the book of the same name, “Alone Together.”
The challenge for the providers of these in-person experiences is threading the needle between the need to embrace digital media and the need to preserve the integrity of the traditional in-person experience. The brands that successfully navigate the shift will balance two interests: gradually teaching audiences what it means to engage in new, digitally-augmented ways; while remaining sensitive to the powerful cultural associations that draw us back to our traditions.