Leaning in Different Directions

Consumers’ interaction with video content is dramatically changing these days, and the corresponding attention that fact is receiving is tremendous. I’ve been surprised, though, that in a number of conversations recently people have cited the (recycled?) distinction between “lean-in” and “lean-back” viewing. Distinguishing along this characteristic came into the vernacular (I think) nearly ten years ago (see this 1/98 CNN article as an example), but perhaps it is becoming more relevant again today. Or is it?

The two terms are representations using the physical state of the consumer as a metaphor for how s/he approaches the content. Lean-back viewing is largely television watching – passive, relaxing, non-interactive sessions. Lean-in viewing is at a PC or desktop device – active, engaged, interactive sessions.

My feeling is that this distinction will eventually become much less clear (and perhaps thus less important). But the real corresponding question is how quickly this change will come to fruition and what the ramifications of it are. An analyst back in 2000 (see report here) called the blurry grey between lean-in and lean-back an “edge-of-the-seat” experience. While he was obviously premature in his prediction, the essence of his thinking is largely correct. Consumption of video content will not strictly be an either/or lean-in or lean-back proposition, but rather somewhere along a gradient in between. It all depends on who, what, where, why, and when it is being consumed.

We are already seeing the beginnings of this transition with people becoming more active in controlling/interacting with their content in a traditionally lean-back environment through Tivo or cable on-demand clips, as well as (SMS) voting and audience participation in reality shows. With the wealth of video entertainment proliferating online recently, it was funny that I found myself earlier this week sitting back in bed and watching a few videos before retiring instead of flipping on the tube. Video on a portable device like an iPod adds another dimension to consider. Include the “third screen” of mobile into the picture (pun intended), and I am not sure which way consumers are “leaning” there – perhaps “hovering-over” instead.

The consequences of this distinction (or lack thereof) for both the content owners / publishers and advertisers is definitely meaningful. At the core, different levels of engagement from a viewer translate into different types of content. And my hunch is that the more active and attentive a viewer, the more valuable s/he is to an advertiser. If/when this distinction blurs, creating the appropriate content and advertising for the viewing situation becomes more challenging to match the consumers’ environment and situation.

The next time you are watching video on any screen, ask yourself if which way you are leaning – and how much it really matters.

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.