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KILL YOUR TELEVISION: TVs in Public Spaces are Murdering Consumer Engagement

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On a recent flight to Austin, Texas, I was struck by the ubiquity of televisions in our public spaces.

While waiting for my connection in Houston, an airport terminal television was blasting near my designated gate. This TV disturbed my personal space. It crawled under my skin. And it got me asking the question: Why, in this era, when we are never without our smartphones, perfectly curated to scratch every conceivable entertainment itch, are we subjected to somebody else’s idea of “entertainment” in public settings?

So I took to the streets. Okay, I took to the second floor of my office building, and asked my colleagues their opinions on the prevalence of televisions in business establishments. To be clear, a television at, say, a sports bar does not count. You go there for the TV. No, I was asking about televisions in doctor’s offices, televisions at the nail salon, televisions while waiting in line at the bank, and, of course, televisions in airport terminals—flickering and often blaring in locations we frequent for specific services or products and not for gratuitous screen time.

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I’ll start by giving my opinion on the matter of public TVs. I hate them. And, naturally, I assumed everyone else did. Not so.

According to my highly non-scientific office survey, many people love these TVs. Sure I heard some dissenting opinions, but by and large, people seem pretty A-ok with them. They enjoy emerging from their smartphone bubbles and watching the same thing as a random waiting room buddy. They appreciate being entertained “at” versus having to curate their own content. They find comfort in the background ambience and warm glow of an aptly-placed screen. And they appreciate having another way to “kill time” in a situation where they otherwise feel captive.

Fine. Lesson learned. Not everyone holds the same opinions I do. But beyond that, my ad hoc survey revealed that people are indeed open to emerging from their inner smartphone world and engaging with the surrounding environment.

So here’s my argument: If people welcome the notion of putting their smartphones down, television should not be the allure for doing so. Surely there must be other/smarter/better/less lazy tactics that brands can employ to engage with their customers.

Engagement…A Quick Refresher

Brand engagement is a buzz term du jour. In this world of infinite consumer choice, companies that cultivate meaningful interactions, or engagement, with their customers are more likely to enjoy increased brand loyalty and, naturally, increased profits. I won’t waste time ticking off the reasons why engagement matters, so for a quick introduction, or just a quick refresher, check out Gallup’s 2014 article on why the emotional components, not just the rational, factor into consumer purchasing decisions. It’s all there.

Ter-Minimal Entertainment

I understand that the airport actually broadcasts a specially-produced airport network that takes in millions of dollars per year in advertising. But have you heard the one about people’s decreasing faith in the air travel experience and how we all know it’s a filthy, indignant race to the bottom? I think airports, and other public areas, would do way more good by turning off these TVs, creating environments that encourage more tangible engagement, and ultimately earn back those dollars in lost ad revenues as a result.

While many people don’t seem to mind, and even welcome the prevalence of televisions in the public sphere, that does not translate into it being the right choice for businesses. I think they can do better. I think they should do better.

The Magical World of Better Brand Experiences

Have you ever been to Disney World? “The most magical place on earth” doesn’t just call itself that. It earned that privilege through bar-raising customer engagement techniques at every twist, turn and queue.

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Disney understands the notion that each moment, even the moments in between moments, are chances to interact with patrons and to fortify its own brand equity.

For example, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is fun. But waiting in line for the ride is arguably just as great with tons of pirate booty and other paraphernalia strategically placed about for patrons to explore while they wait.

Could Disney take away these high-touch consumer engagement moments and replace them with televisions showing sponsorship ads instead? I guess so. They’d probably make a little money, too. But I also know that enacting such a decision would eat into the distinguished brand that Disney has built upon and benefitted from for decades.

Cut the Cord

Businesses, turn off your TVs and inject a little bit of the magical Disney mindset into your operations. You could offer kid activities for frazzled parents waiting in airport, train or bus terminals. How about a pop-up juice bar at your local nail salon? Or, follow the lead of some truly daring coffee shops that have even gone so far as to turn their Wi-Fi off entirely. You heard me; In order to stir up some good old-fashioned connectivity, they’ve pulled the plugon our notion of twenty-first century connectivity.

Your guests will notice your efforts, and I suspect you will notice more engaged customers who also spend more in your establishment.

Naomi Le Bihan