The Death Of The Water Cooler Moment: Advertising In The On-Demand Landscape

Michael Brenner

The water cooler moment ranks among the unsung cultural drivers of modern corporate life. Imagine it’s Monday morning in the office, staff are arriving and preparing for the working week ahead, but leaving their desks for a minute or two to grab a glass of water or a cup of coffee or tea, and lingering around the water cooler discussing the weekend’s news or must-see binge-worthy series on Netflix.

As a cultural phenomenon it was almost unique. There was no broadcasting taking place, no additional message being transmitted, just groups of people gathering together to discuss key moments in popular culture and current events. But to dismiss this sort of occurrence as simple is to miss out on the bigger picture altogether.

It was the social and psychological complexity of the water cooler moment that made it so valuable for advertisers and digital marketers. People don’t want to be socially excluded. They don’t want to miss out on the cultural products du jour or appear ignorant on the issues of the day.

This psychology exerts pressure; it pushes media consumers and television watchers to follow the herd, bunching up and collecting themselves into one place. This makes the life of a media services provider much easier.

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The end of an era

Two things torpedoed the water cooler moment: advances in technology and shifting attitudes towards television consumption. Homes that once had a single central television set are now not so limited. Several decades ago, as televisions became cheaper, households often bought second or third sets for other rooms. In recent years, computers have found pride of place in the home, providing more screens on which to view broadcasts traditionally reserved for the television.

Tablets and smartphones now proliferate, as do on-demand media services. Consumers can watch whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, and wherever they want. The water cooler moment hinged on communal experience; it required groups of people gathering in front of devices – not necessarily in the same place – but certainly at the same time. This doesn’t happen in the same way it used to.

Attitudes have shifted, too. To understand this, we only need to look at news coverage. News was once carefully regimented. Unless you were close enough to an event to hear about it through word of mouth or even witness it for yourself, information was fed to you via newspapers in the morning and evening, and via 25-minute bulletins at set points throughout the day.

Again, this delivered us a sense of communal experience, of witnessing the unfolding of events together, en masse. The audience was unified in their consumption of facts and figures, delivered at regular intervals.

Not anymore. Now there is rolling news, there is 24-hour connection via smartphones and other devices, there are news websites, there are live blogs, there are Twitter accounts and Medium posts, there are even dissident blogs giving you unfiltered, unrefined versions of alternative news.

Your understanding of the world is now solely your own; and no one else’s.

Beyond the cooler: What’s next for digital marketing?

Broadcasters must adapt. There is a new status quo, and media products must be positioned to fit into this renewed conception of what is normal. However, marketers must remember that this is not – or not yet, anyway – a complete revolution.

In 2013, Business Insider reported that television remains the dominant device in living rooms, at least in America, although it continues to lose ground to other pieces of tech. Statistics released by Marketing Charts in 2016 show that this is still the case and that the majority of U.S households are still loyal to the schedules, with 13 hours of scheduled television for every hour of “time-shifted” content.

We exist now in a state of transition in the media. The water cooler moment is gone, simply because users can now catch-up or re-watch key moments at any time, and so the sense of commonality is removed from the process. The water cooler moments that remain – such as the Super Bowl – are priced so far out of the market for advertisers that they might as well not exist at all.

So, what can broadcasters do? They need to create new water cooler moments, facilitating new conversations and new meeting points, tying the different mediums together. As digital marketers, we cannot afford to turn our backs on traditional forms of television just yet; instead, we need to integrate our efforts and connect with our audience en masse, across all channels.

While the water cooler has fallen, social media has risen. Social platforms may lack the human element of water cooler conversations, but they make up for this in power and scope. Look online; people are talking, discussing television shows and other cultural products in vast numbers, creating a powerful flow of discourse. The next step for broadcasters is to position their products at the heart of that discourse.

A new type of conversation around the digital water cooler

The conversation is still there; it has just moved online. In many ways, social media has become the digital water cooler, providing a forum for information exchange and cultural communication.

We can view this as a web, stretching out, linking, and uniting all the different positions in which the media engages with the public.

For digital marketers and broadcasters – now bereft of the water cooler moments they once tapped into – this represents a whole new space in which to build momentum and to spark conversation. Marketers can accompany traditional television content with hashtags and social media information to help start the discourse online, deploying directly clickable share buttons when the content is posted on a smart device.

Interaction can be incentivized with competitions and other giveaways or nurtured by opening up strategizing sessions to collaborative effort. Such interaction enhances the profile of a broadcast or a media product, while also breeding data that can then be fed back into the planning process and used in outlining future objectives.

Platforms come and platforms go, but some things remain constant; humans are social creatures and there will always be a market for discussing popular culture. In this sense, the water cooler moment never went away at all, it just changed form.

To find out more about shaping the digital water cooler, click here.

This post is the third of a seven-part series, “Reimagining Media in The Digital Age.” Check back weekly for further blogs in the series.

About Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author of  The Content Formula and the CEO of Marketing Insider GroupHe has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael shares his passion on leadership and marketing strategies that deliver customer value and business impact. He is recognized by the Huffington Post as a Top Business Keynote Speaker and   a top  CMO influencer by Forbes.