MarTech Landscape: What is OTT programming and why does it matter?

Over-The-Top is a rapidly changing term, but it signifies a permanent change in how people consume content.

MarTech Landscape: What is OTT programming and why does it matter?

Let’s say that Verizon provides both your cable and your Internet service.

In that case, when you watch Game of Thrones on cable TV, it’s on a cable network (HBO) that Verizon delivers as part of your cable package.

But, if you watch Flaked, an original TV series from Netflix, it’s delivered over Verizon’s Internet service, not through its managed cable TV service. In other words, it’s delivered “over-the-top” (OTT) of the Verizon-provided Internet, without Verizon exercising management or receiving content-related fees. In this installment of Marketing Land’s MarTech Landscape Series, we explain what OTT means and why it’s relevant to marketers.

Such OTT (pronounced O-T-T) TV is redefining what it means to “watch TV.” If you’re under 25 years old, for instance, “watching TV” is practically a metaphor, since you may well watch Internet-delivered content almost exclusively. And only sometimes do you actually, you know, watch it on a TV.

(To keep things relatively simple, let’s ignore for the moment that cable TV can also be delivered using IP or Internet Protocol technology. The main factor here is that OTT TV bypasses the cable or satellite TV gatekeepers.)

OTT TV originally focused on the delivery of TV programs over the Internet, such as through Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon. This helped point out that something like Flaked on Netflix came from a different source than Game of Thrones on your subscribed HBO, even though both might be seen on the same TV.

But it’s gotten complicated.

OTT communications services

As mentioned, the content isn’t always watched on a TV. And it doesn’t need to be TV programs. The term OTT is sometimes used to describe any kind of video content, such as YouTube’s user-generated videos.

And OTT content has been expanded to include communications services that bypass telecommunication companies.

So, if you subscribe to Verizon Wireless’ cell phone service for voice and data but communicate via text messaging over Facebook-owned WhatsApp on the Net, that has also become known as an “over-the-top” service.

The WhatsApp service is not provided or managed by Verizon Wireless, as their texting service is. Instead, it’s just riding on their Internet.

By this definition, then, OTT could describe a wide array of Net-based, mobile communications services available via an app, including Facebook Messenger, Skype, Twitter’s Periscope, and many more.

Essentially, the term has come to mean any kind of communication that occupies people’s attention like programs do, and that bypasses the normal gatekeeper of that transmission.

Why this matters to the marketer

While the breadth of the term is expanding almost beyond significance, OTT does represent some key developments that are essential to the digital marketer.

First, it reflects the de-bundling of cable, satellite, and telco services, those tiers of premium channels or communications services where the consumer accepts some they don’t want to get the ones they do.

Nowadays, if you wanted just HBO and not ESPN, you could subscribe to the OTT standalone version of that premium channel, HBO NOW on the Web. This means that marketers have several choices if they want to reach, say, the viewers of Game of Thrones. But, if they want to reach all the viewers of GoT, they need to coordinate their ads across multiple delivery paths.

Second, the term indicates both the supremacy of content, and its fluid nature.

It doesn’t matter for a consumer whether an episode of the TV series Jane The Virgin is watched on a TV during its original run on broadcast TV over your cable system, or on your TV from Hulu on the Net.

Hulu via a Net-connected TV or an add-on set-top box like Roku or Apple TV delivers HD-quality video. The content, finally, is king here, no matter the source or the delivery.

For marketers that want to reach viewers of Jane The Virgin, that means: follow the content, not the delivery system.

Interweaving OTT into the ecosystem

But, at the same time, the expanded definition of OTT — including text messaging, for instance, as well as cats-playing-with-twine videos on YouTube — means that traditional concepts of programming have radically changed. And marketers, who follow users’ attention, similarly follow the exploding definitions of “watching a program” or “engaging with content.”

As a result, OTT content is now becoming interwoven into the tapestry of marketing services, from Adobe’s more complete integration of OTT into its Marketing Cloud to the tracking of OTT as part of the multi-screen reality.

At some point, OTT may become a superfluous phrase, like “wireless” or “connected” almost are now. We don’t describe devices as being “electrical,” and, in time, we will assume every device is wirelessly connected.

Already, we commonly conduct voice conversations over Skype, phone, or a dozen other ways, but rarely consider the differences as long as the quality compares. We don’t say, “let’s do an OTT phone call.”

Last fall, eMarketer found that 70 percent of American Internet users watch such OTT services as Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube. With those and other OTT sources growing in popularity, the term may fade as online content and communications settle into being just another channel choice.


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