Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

BACK TO EARTH AFTER PLANET IBC

October 16th, 2012

I’m currently sitting in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, waiting for my flight back to London after a couple of fun days at the IBC Conference, mixing with the tech community. I’ve only ever attended IBC twice before – across twelve or so years – but it never ceases to amaze me by its scale (at least twelve exhibition halls and over fifty thousand attendees) and also its consistency in constantly claiming the death of everything in the wake of the great god Digital. It was only last year that one of IBC’s keynote speakers – ex Channel 4 Chairman Luke Johnson – was predicting the imminent demise of broadcast television.

Except this year felt a little different.

I had been invited to be part of the connected television debate. The motion was that “connected television will make traditional channels irrelevant”. You can guess which side of the debate I was asked to take!

My first instinct was that it was a set-up; surely –given all the evidence – nobody still believes in this death-obsessed replacement narrative any more, do they? Then I remembered it was IBC. Along with my debating team mates – John Honeycutt of Discovery Channels and Nigel Walley of Decipher – I prepared my arguments convinced it was a lost cause; I felt a bit like George Osborne before he presented the Paralympics medals.

But then a strange thing happened. Our session chairman asked for a show of hands before the debate got under way, to establish the benchmark opinion on the topic. To my amazement, far more hands went up to signify the traditional channels will maintain their position, about 3-4 times as many as those who thought the traditional channels would become irrelevant.

In true IBC tradition, we didn’t change many minds; when the post-debate show of hands was called for, almost exactly the same people voted for exactly the same propositions. However, when asked who gave the most convincing arguments, the vast majority voted for our team. I can honestly say, that was the first formal debate I’ve ever won in my life!

It was made easier by our opponents, who seemed to focus their argument on the hypothesis that everything is changing so of course the traditional channels must fall by the wayside, with no firm evidence to support their case, other than “the internet figures are going up all the time”. This is something I have been constantly frustrated by ever since I started to make a career out of defending television – the world of digital, despite being so data-rich, relies so much on this tired and redundant argument; X is growing so it must replace Y.  It has a similar feel to it to that famous paean to wishful thinking – “if we build it, they will come” – that infected so many new media business plans before the first dotcom crash.

Our surprising victory wasn’t an outlying blip, either. In all of the other sessions I attended, there was a tacit realisation that digital innovation will have to work within the existing eco-system, rather than as an alternative. TV didn’t appear to be seen as the great enemy any longer, but as a potential business opportunity that could best be realised by working with the main broadcast players rather than against them. And, as with most eco-systems, the whole will almost certainly be greater than the sum of the parts, and digital can be used to enhance rather than compete with ingrained, valued human experiences.

So, hats off to IBC and here’s to a future where the traditional will co-exist with the new and we can concentrate on growth rather than the battle for world domination. This may be the start of the process leading to such debates finally becoming irrelevant.

MEDIA REHAB

October 16th, 2012

They tried to make me go to (media) rehab, I said NO! NO! NO!

I have just returned home after a 3 week sojourn in a Turkish haven of tranquility, where I have spent time recovering from an addiction I never knew I had. Three whole weeks with scarcely a media touch point in sight (nor sound). It was tough, but once the withdrawal symptoms wore off, I was able to approach the real world with a renewed sense of engagement and a clearer perspective. Cold turkey in Turkey, in fact.

I should explain. My family and I stayed near a small fishing village, which has never seen an English language newspaper or magazine. The internet connection in our small resort complex was as unreliable as the local transport and the nearest bar to offer wi-fi was a 40 minute boat ride away. 3G connections were similarly unreliable, as well as ridiculously expensive. We had satellite TV in our apartment but apart from the news channels, it was exclusively foreign language programming. (Incidentally, why are specialist news channels the only English language services in international hotels and resorts, when the Italian, French and  German speakers can usually get their entertainment channels, such as  RAI, TF1, RTL and ZDF?)

Pretty much the whole resort gathered around the bar’s TV screen for Mo Farah’s 5,000 metre race, but it was interrupted on Turkish TV for the bronze medal tussle in the Greco-Roman wrestling – or, as my wife described it, two very large kittens fighting in a cat basket! – but otherwise the TV screen stayed reassuringly blank.

So, like my fellow media addicts, I spent the first week fretting about the dried-up supply chain (apparently, if you arose at 6.30 am and waved your laptop in the right direction, it was occasionally possible to get 20 minutes’ worth of Facebook) and talking wistfully of times past. We would laugh as the new arrivals to our therapy group would turn ashen-faced as they realised their laptops and ipads would remain unconnected and they would have to make the Weekend Guardian they bought on the way out last them the whole fortnight. And slowly, very slowly, we flushed away the need for constant updates and wall-to-wall entertainment media and found our true selves again. Real-life conversations, interactive fun (i.e. diving off the boat jetty) and savouring the simple things of life took over. The Sky EPG, Times leader column and Twitter trending became a dim and distant memory.

However, despite the eventual success of my enforced media rehab programme, it was obvious that the cycle of addiction was not completely broken; I would still find myself watching the BBC World news cycle several times over, wave my ipad in futile attempts to get a signal and re-read the Weekend Guardian’s travel section article on singles holidays in the Ukraine.

As always, it was harder on the little ones. When we asked our son;s teenage friend Jack if he was looking forward to going home later that day, he replied “well, yes and no”. When pressed, he admitted he would miss “all of this”, gesturing vaguely at the sun-soaked holiday paradise around him, but he then qualified his remark by saying he couldn’t wait to get back to his satellite TV and wi-fi connections. Plus ca change…

 

DELOITTE TV:WHY? REPORT

October 16th, 2012

“I can’t imagine life without television”

Only 9% of sample disagreed strongly – compared to 22% who agreed strongly.

Total agree is around 55% – total disagree around 20%

About 2x % 16-18s strongly agree compared to 55+s

 

“Watching TV is a good way of bringing the family together”

Total agree around 55% – compared to total disagree c. 12%

More than twice the % of 55+s disagree cf teenagers (16%)

Sharing in the physical space/analogue world

 

“Watching TV with others is much more enjoyable than watching alone”

C 50% agree vs 18% disagree

Young much more likely to agree

 

TV Got Worse?

For each of past 21 years UK public been polled (Deloitte?). Each year 30-40% say TV programming ‘got worse’ and only 10% say it has improved

How ties in with the importance of now?

Deloitte – 52 hours first run programming on PSBs alone every day! Estimate we don;t watch 99.95% (1460 hours p.a. vs 3million produced!)

Younger agree “the quality of TV programmes nowadays is better than ever before” but equal agree/disagree at older end of spectrum

 

Second Screening – Like TV Dinners

2 connected devices per UK citizen – laptops, smartphones, tablets. Early adopters 4 per adult

Mainly about TV – especially 121 communication and wider social networking. About TV > instead of TV. Ripple > Drill (expand analogy)

 

Frequency of communication with others via internet about the programme being watched – e.g. messaging, email, Facebook, Twitter;

-       Half of 16-24s do frequently or occasionally

-       Only 22% never use web to talk about programmes

About 2/3 agree slightly or strongly with statement “I can’t be bothered to interact with programmes”. Not much variation by age – where are the ‘killer apps’?

 

WHY DO WE NEED BARB? SIGH!

October 16th, 2012

I was fortunate enough to attend Mediatel’s Media Playground last week and enjoyed the lively debates, especially around the new screen opportunities and the value of data. Unfortunately, I arrived late, and so the Screen panel session was already in full swing, and as the room was packed full of delegates, I had to sidle my way to one of the few vacant seats, right on the front row.

That wouldn’t have been too much of a problem except, not long after I sat down, the debate shifted to the perennial topic of why do we need BARB? Apparently, I sighed very audibly (thanks for pointing that out, Rhys!) which prompted a ripple of laughter.

As it happens, I was sighing because I’d just realised I’d left my mobile phone at home, but my opinions are apparently so well known that it was easily misconstrued: which is fair enough, because if I hadn’t been so pissed off about my iphone, I’m sure I would have sighed, if not wept tears of frustration. I’ve heard so much recently about BARB’s irrelevance to the digital media landscape of today that I feel I ought to add my voice to the case for its defence.

  1. BARB is an accepted currency. It is rare that we get the advertisers, agencies and media owners all in agreement, but the structure of BARB is such that they all have a stake in its development and implementation. A £3bn market needs a recognised currency, which is why the online industry is doing its best to replicate BARB via UKOM.

 

  1. BARB stands alone. One of the frustrations of online research and analytics is the plethora of data sources, meaning buyers and sellers can pick and mix the data that most suits them. It creates confusion, contention and conflict, rarely to the satisfaction of either party.

 

  1. BARB is constantly reviewed and quality controlled, so that the recruitment, measurement and analysis of the data is all conducted to the highest standards and the accuracy and consistency of the data is optimised. Having sat on more BARB committees and working parties than I care to remember (the Rim Weighting Working Party still gives me nightmares, twenty years on!) I can vouch for the huge amount of work that goes into ensuring the quality of the outputs.

 

  1. BARB is highly representative of the whole of the UK population, not just the online population – or worse, the tiny percentage of the population that decide to take part in online surveys.

 

  1. BARB measures people, not clicks. As such, it enables us to understand the profile of an audience, measure reach and frequency of campaigns and track individuals’ viewing over time; all hugely important for a display medium like television.

 

  1. BARB measures behaviour, not attitudes or estimates. The people meter methodology means respondents aren’t asked to recall their viewing or to record attitudes or perceptions; both of which are subject to inconsistencies and mistakes. It merely asks them to press a button whenever they enter or leave a room when the TV set is on (and BARB coincidental surveys indicate they do that accurately).

 

  1. BARB stands up to rigourous comparison with other respected data sources. For example, the IPA Touchpoints survey regularly shows a 99%+ correlation with the comparable BARB data, despite being measured via a different methodology.

 

  1. BARB is fit for purpose. Although it has been criticised for being slow to measure new forms of viewing, such as on demand, and cannot be deemed reliable in its measurement of individual programmes on the smallest channels, it measures the bulk of TV viewing accurately and reliably. It was interesting in the Screen debate that there was also a complaint from the on demand aggregators that BARB doesn’t measure their output yet (although plans are being developed), which kind of suggests even they see the point of BARB really.

 

The most common criticism of BARB from the online industry is that a sample size of 5,000 is almost archaic in the age of big data. Such complaints display ignorance in themselves; BARB’s sample size is over 12,000 people in more than 5,000 households. It is enough to provide an accurate and consistent measure of most TV viewing, certainly the viewing which attracts the vast bulk of TV revenues.

This is not to say that BARB shouldn’t evolve to match the changing demands of the digital media landscape, but so far it has managed pretty well. The main criticism is that it has been slow to measure on demand viewing via other screens, but this still accounts for less than 3% of total TV viewing, so it has not been a priority until now.  That said, BARB is already moving away from its core objective of ‘measurement of in-home viewing via the TV set’

I think, over the coming years, we can expect to see BARB measure more forms of TV viewing, wherever they occur. In order to keep up with the viewing shifts that are constantly evolving, we can also expect to see it fuse or merge with third party data – perhaps from server data or separate research studies – to provide a ‘Silver Standard’ service for the less mainstream forms of viewing.

What we won’t see in the foreseeable future is a rival service based on ‘big data’ and very different methodologies. There has been talk recently of social TV services such as zeebox providing alternative viewing measurement based on possibly hundreds of thousands of contributors. Good luck with that, I say, but until such a service can address the points I have raised in the case for BARB’s defence I think we can safely say that it will be around for quite some time to come.

TRANS-EURO EXPRESS

October 16th, 2012

I have been presenting a great deal in mainland Europe over the past year or so, and I have to say that I am having some of my preconceptions challenged by what is going on over there.

One of the major benefits of a career in media research in the UK is that, on most indicators, we have the most digitally advanced market in the world and the levels of creativity and innovation used to harness digital technology for marketing purposes has been well recognised. Most European broadcasters would accept that the UK is a year or two ahead in most respects, and they are interested in what we are doing here as a result.

Things are beginning to change, though, and the UK could learn a thing or two about what is happening elsewhere in Europe.

For example, I presented in Poland recently and saw firsthand some of the creative solutions that are being presented to advertisers to enable them to more effectively integrate into TV content. It rivalled many of the case studies I have seen from the UK demonstrating how broadcasters, agencies and brands can work together.

Or take Italy. Since Silvio Berlusconi loosened his grip on Italian politics, many of the regulatory restrictions he placed on digital development to protect his analogue-era media powerhouses are being dismantled, leading to a technology-led transformation of the TV experience (according to a recent New York Times article) and a significant shift in viewing from the cocooned Mediaset channels to quality alternatives such as Discovery Channels, which has recently launched two free-to-air channels. The Italian experience shows just how quickly the market can change once digital regulation is opened up and competition, creativity and innovation are unleashed.

Sweden provides a very different example, which also offers potential lessons for UK media. The Swedish market is one of the most technologically advanced in the world, but the advertising powerhouse is considered to be good old-fashioned newspapers. This is because Swedes pride themselves on their education levels and interest in the world around them, and newspaper readership is considered a symbol of these values. It is also in large part due to the power of the local press to service the significant local advertising industry in Sweden; the leading free-to-air broadcasters have invested in dozens of localised transmissions to take a share of those local revenues from an estimated 36,000 potential advertisers.

The local advertising market in the UK has always been considered hardly worth bothering with, especially as television advertising opportunities for local advertisers significantly reduced with the pulling back of ITV’s regional franchise system. I think this is a lost opportunity and offers one of the few substantive opportunities for addressability. I’m generally sceptical about how important addressability will become, but unlocking the regional and local advertising opportunities that still exist could be a simple yet valuable solution to a revenue challenge.

 

 

HAS US PRIME TIME LOST ITS SHINE?

October 16th, 2012

According to a recent academic paper by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, there has been an increasing collective interest in death and dying within American society, and it has been growing consistently for several decades. It certainly seems to have permeated the US media industry, and particularly its industry press, which has been chirruping recently about the dramatic falls in viewing the US networks have been experiencing in the last month or so, and the signal it sends that Americans are (finally!) drifting away from their television sets for good.

The New York Times reported under the headline ‘Prime-time Ratings Bring Speculation of a Shift in Viewing Habits’ that the combined network audiences were down by double digit levels year on year, with the comment “I think we are at a tipping point in how people are going to watch shows”. The LA Times breathlessly reported that “the prime-time television ratings drop took centrer stage at the Digital Content NewFront presentations in New York, with former ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun seizing on the numbers as an opportunity to talk about changing viewing habits — and the rise of digital media”. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

A single month of poor figures and the prophets of doom and gloom immediately assemble to pick over network television’s carcass. Except, there is no body to scavenge and the numbers being touted suffer from some basic misinterpretations!

Thanks to my good friend, Dr. Horst Stipp of the Advertising Research Foundation, I have managed to get hold of some Nielsen figures, which put a different light on the numbers.

The first thing to note is that the numbers relate to the 4 week period ending 12th April. Now, first of all, a four week period is hardly enough time to suggest the death of the dominant digital media channel, but sadly that is the short-termist nature of the world we live in. However, it wasn’t just any 4 week period; it was a period which contained both the Easter and spring breaks this year, but not in 2011. TV viewing suffers during those two periods, as anybody who has tried to get out of a major US city during Easter weekend will tell you. So, for a start, the analysis compares apples and pears.

The analysis is also incomplete. It only takes into account viewing to the main commercial networks (across one of their traditionally weaker audience periods) and, like most markets with a vibrant multi-channel offering, their share of viewing has been declining consistently, for something like 24 consecutive months. It also only includes live and same day viewing; so much of the timeshift viewing that has long been a feature of US TV viewing is taken out of the equation.

If we were to base the analysis on a longer time-span and a like-for-like comparison of all television viewing, Nielsen data shows a much more settled picture. For example, across the whole of the first quarter, total viewing is up and viewing amongst the all-important 18-49 demographic – the cord cutters and Netflix addicts (supposedly) – was actually up 2% on 2011.  In fact, across the whole TV season, from September 2011 to April 2012, both all individuals and 18-49 TV viewing levels were up on slightly on the previous year – and that, remember, is coming off a very high base.

There is a depressing familiarity to the speed with which this ‘TV is dying’ narrative continues to re-emerge. It only takes a few weeks’ data to set it off again, it is woefully ignorant of the context (e.g. the importance of Easter in the comparison) and it is based on wishful thinking, reminiscent of a time when “if we build it, they will come” was a staple phrase in most digital business plans.

THE OPPOSITE OF A BRAND ADVOCATE

October 16th, 2012

I conducted a piece of brand research a couple of years ago, which dared to raise a question few people in marketing ever ask; “are there any brands out there that you would refuse to buy, at any price?”

The answer, at the time, was an unqualified ‘yes’! It was remarkable how many markets and brands were deemed toxic by consumers, many of them in the services sector. These were spontaneous outpourings of rage – we just gave them time to get it out of their system. There were many numerous examples of poor, almost non-existent customer service, especially at those times when customers are most in need; when the technology goes wrong.

There are several brands already banished from the Brennan household, mainly due to the above complaint, but my recent Escher-esque dealings with Microsoft have resulted in an addition to the toxic brand gang. I won’t bore you with the details, but it consists of many failed attempts to re-access a closed Hotmail account (bloody hackers!) leading to a constant loop around the message boards for a solution. At least I knew I was not alone; endless exhortations to the God of Inaccessible Alternate Email Accounts came from around the globe, with not a single answer to pacify them. It has been more trouble than it has been worth, so I’ve just opened a Google account instead.

But it’s refocused my attention on the problem of toxic brands because, sure as eggs is eggs, if I asked that same question today, there would be even more candidates across even more markets . In fact, I would bet good money that the number of brands spontaneously placed in the toxic category would outweigh those in the ‘buy at any price’ equivalent.

Which is odd, really, because the industry spends so much money on the latter. One of the myths of social marketing is that brand advocates will lead the way, spreading the good word in a way that paid-for media could never achieve. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that people with a grievance outshout the satisfied every time. Try it the next time you’re at a dinner party and the conversation has dried up. Ask the question “are there any brands out there that you would refuse to buy, at any price?” and listen to the grievances pour out. There will be no more awkward silences, I can promise you.

So why isn’t more invested into the opposite-of-advocates (see, they haven’t even got a recognised name)?  I believe their existence is a failure of marketing and a challenge for media planning – after all, why try to reach them? But it is largely due to the increasingly digital mindset of technology-led services. I explore this whole issue of digital vs. analogue mindsets in my new book (shameless plug), focussing on the enduring ‘analogue’ strengths of TV, but the digital vs. analogue paradigm extends across the marketing spectrum.

For many digital-mindset brands, it is virtually impossible to speak to or even email a real human being representing the company. As a consumer, your key interaction with the brand – when you most need them – will all too often result in an online infinity loop or, at best, a highly scripted, often surreal interaction with what may or may not be a real human voice. There is little room in either ‘brand experience’ for analogue qualities such as ‘common sense’, empathy or lateral thinking. As such, the services industry often struggles to match branding promises against the reality of faceless, commissioned, unresponsive CRM based on algorithms, efficiency and ‘hands-off’ customer servicing.

There are technology-based brands that get it, and these are often what I would call analogue-mindset businesses. Companies like Apple and Sky are far more customer-focussed, responsive and…well, just a bit more human in how they interact with their customers. All of the latest insights emerging from neuroscience, cognitive psychology and behavioural economics have opened our eyes to what those analogue qualities are worth in business terms, and I’m surprised that so many technology brands have failed to grasp that fact.

It’s interesting that I’ve just mentioned two brands with more than their fair share of brand advocates, but they are also two brands that rarely get mentioned when the ‘toxic brand’ question is asked. But then the question itself rarely gets asked in the rush for Facebook ‘likes’ and brand champions.

In the meantime, I’d suggest a bit more focus on the ‘opposite-of-advocates’ would yield a great deal more in the way of business performance. If you want to find out who they are, or how strongly they feel, just ask that question at your next dinner party. Then lean back and listen to the roar. You might not get invited back, but you’ll be much better informed.



CONNECTED TELEVISION – How TV’s Analogue Strengths Have Created a Digital Supermedium’

Are we an art or a science?

February 2nd, 2012

I’ve been giving the subject of this week’s blog a lot of thought and, although it might sound like pretentious twaddle in places, I would really appreciate any comments if it strikes a chord, hits a nerve or presses your buttons. It is about the art and science of our jobs.

I initially went to University to study economics, but gave it up after less than three weeks, persuading them that I really should have been studying psychology instead.  Economics frightened me in the same way the Daleks had caused me to hide behind the sofa just a decade before; it portrayed a world of self-interest – cold, rational, analytical, predictable and improbably perfect.

Psychology should have been much more satisfying; it was about people and even in my teens I recognised that they were much warmer, messier, irrational, complex and unpredictable than economic theory. Unfortunately, like many psychology faculties at the time, the focus was on the scientific method and many of the theorists I was drawn to would often be dismissed as charlatans, because their theories could never be scientifically tested.  Psychology so wanted to be a science, even though it was designated a Bachelor of Arts degree.  If it couldn’t be measured, it couldn’t exist, said my tutors, and who was I to disagree?

This conflict between art and science has not always been so pronounced. During the Renaissance of the 14th – 17th centuries, both art and science flourished and polymaths such as Da Vinci were commonplace. However, the subsequent ‘Age of Enlightenment’, from the late 17th century, prized reason above everything and many of the rigourous principles underpinning science, mathematics and economics were laid down. They have ensured science has been valued over art ever since.

In our world of media and marketing, we have a much shorter timeframe to look at, but I think we have been through our renaissance and are now living through our age of enlightenment. Take advertising; the world of ‘Mad Men’ depicted one where art carried the torch. The creative was the focus, the science was more peripheral and ‘research’ was still finding its feet.

Since then, we’ve had our own Age of Enlightenment, although I’m not sure how enlightened it has made us.  A combination of ‘marketing science’ – where everything can be measured and evaluated – and digital technology – unleashing a torrent of analytics – has ensured there is more than a hint of Dalek in the cold, rational, analytical, predictable and perfectly-defined world we now inhabit.  This is the world of the pre-test, the marketing formula, real-time planning , media auditing and response optimisation. In its way, it is a beautiful place, a data junkie’s nirvana, but it has never felt like home!

There are signs that things are swaying back to a new Renaissance, though.  Two connected phenomena in particular, have helped to make life interesting again;

  1. 1.       The decline in the reputation of classical economics, and the increasing applicability of behavioural economics to marketing theory and practice.
  2. 2.       The increasing understanding that emotion is behind most decision-making and it can be best elicited through creativity.

I think both of the above have begun to transform marketing and advertising, the former in quite a micro way (re-framing the context, employing media touchpoints for specific behavioural goals) whilst the latter has been at a more macro level (releasing creativity, uniting media around big, brave ideas).

So here is my question. Is media – especially media research   - ahead of or behind the curve? Is it driven by art or science?

In order to answer that question, let me ask a follow-up. How much of our work directly affects the decisions that really move the goalposts? I don’t mean reinforcing decisions that have already been taken or fine-tuning the process. How often does the work we produce -  whether for media owners, agencies or advertisers –  have a real influence on the stuff that normal consumers would mention spontaneously if you were to stop them on the street or would animatedly  talk about amongst themselves in all of those face-to-face conversations we never hear? When they enthuse about animated meerkats, genre-busting TV shows, drumming gorillas, magazines aimed at lifestyles you didn’t know existed, posters that (literally) stop the traffic or social media experiences that last longer than a wet weekend, how often can research, or planning for that matter, puff out its chest and say “Without me that might never have happened”?

I don’t want to make this sound like an attack on research or planning. I have been fortunate enough to work for, with and against some of the most knowledgeable, talented and intellectually curious people I could ever wish to meet, but this issue has bugged me throughout my career.  We have developed the perfect tools to analyse, evaluate and measure, but how often do we use them to inspire, innovate or even challenge preconceptions? I can’t think of too many examples.

 If we want to be there when the big decisions are being made, we need to merge the science with the art, the insight with the analytics, and the creative with the prosaic.  It’s possible; the data’s available in abundance and the ‘renaissance’ skills within our industry even more so. Are we bringing them together enough to really make a difference? Do we need a renaissance or are we enlightened enough?

It’s a genuine question. If you have an answer, or even an insight to offer, email me at david@medianative.tv.

Attention – this is not engagement!

February 2nd, 2012

‘Engagement’ is still one of the most overused words in media. It is a slippery snake of a concept, still without a consensus definition and ‘measured’ in a menagerie of random (and often conflicting) ways. Each medium has a different interpretation of it and those interpretations don’t travel well. We have no accepted view of how it contributes to the bottom line. We know very little about it. But we know one thing; it is not attention. We don’t ‘think about’ engagement. So why does it keep getting pushed that way?

Siegmund Freud studied neuroscience, but became frustrated by the limited explanation the physical brain could provide for the complexities of the human experience. When he proposed, more than a century ago, that “‘most of our mental life operates unconsciously and that consciousness is merely a property of one part of the mind” he was vilified by the scientific community. Yet those two hypotheses, that most of our mental functioning happens at an unconscious level and our conscious brain is relatively unimportant in the wider scheme of things, are readily (and provably) accepted by that same community today.

What hasn’t changed is the constant pressure by some within the marketing industry to keep the focus on the conscious brain. It is easy to measure, even easier to predict and understand. It’s the part of the brain we can most easily influence. Unfortunately, in most consumer decisions, including the most important they will ever make, it has very little influence itself.

So what has this got to do with engagement?

Well, over the past decade, ever since the term ‘engagement’ became one of the media industry’s mots du jour, everybody’s been pushing it towards our conscious brain. Part of the problem is the lack of a cohesive definition of what the hell it means. The Advertising Research Foundation committed huge resource to coming up with the definition we all use nowadays: Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea, enhanced by the surrounding context”

The ARF definition is descriptive but hardly insightful. It tells us that engagement has three component parts – the consumer (the prospect), the content (brand idea) and the context. But it doesn’t tell us how it works.  In fact, the best definition of engagement I have ever heard has come from the neuroscientists. They define engagement as “a sense of immersion in an experience, generated by feelings of personal relevance”.

In most neuromarketing studies, including the one I commissioned at Thinkbox last year, engagement is strongly correlated with our long-term memory encoding (LTME), which is where most of our purchasing ‘heuristics’ (emotional short-cuts) are formed.  It is interesting that attention levels have no relationship with LTME at all. More relevant to this debate is this; attention and engagement have no direct relationship with each other! It is the cognitive/explicit and the emotional/implicit brains working independently of each other. As usual, we’ve put all of our focus on the part of the brain with which we are most comfortable. So, we have engagement metrics such as click-through rates, dwell time, recall, purchase intent, buzz metrics, website visits and brand preference used with abandon, all focussed on the cognitive side of our brains.

This was brought home to me when I attended the annual Media Research Group Conference a couple of weeks ago. There was a thought-provoking paper from Becky McQuade of Sky and Anne Mollen from the Cranfield School of Management attempting to define online engagement. Anne defined engagement as “a cognitive and affective commitment to an active relationship” which requires three elements

  • Utility/relevance
  • Pleasure/enjoyment
  • Dynamic and sustained cognitive process

 

My first instinct was to bristle; again, so much emphasis on the cognitive. But then, I thought, this is about online engagement, and when people are in that attentive state of mind, maybe the definition works. But, if it does, it is as a consequence of engagement, rather than as a measure of it.

Online activity is all about attention. It is task-oriented, focussed and goal-seeking. That is one of the main reasons why most forms of online display struggle to generate impact; they are too easy to ‘edit out’ (which is advertising embedded in video entertainment appears to work best of all). It is the predominant mindset, so that even the same content viewed online will be processed with far more attention and far less engagement that if it was viewed on TV.

However, attention and engagement may not be (cor)related, but they are no strangers. I have seen tons of evidence to suggest that, once the engagement has been achieved, it can more easily lead to attention and, ultimately, action. Consumers purchasing cars, furniture, computers, TV sets, games consoles and digital cameras (to name but a few) will all talk about how the TV ad created a sense of engagement and relevance with the brand, that was then nudged forward and harvested via online attention-based actions.

There used to be a significant time gap between creating the engagement and harvesting the attention, but as all media platforms become more interactive (directly or via second screens) that gap is shortening. We saw some great examples at Thinkbox of people going from initial awareness of a product to purchase during the course of a single commercial break. That means they go from engagement to attention to action in a matter of seconds.

The thing is, we still need to understand this process better, and how we can best plan for it. It alters the whole concept of ‘campaign periods’, ‘effective frequency’, ‘point of sale’ and ‘brand-building vs. response’ to name but a few. It means we have to fully understand what we really mean by the term ‘engagement’, rather than just throwing it around as one of those ‘boardroom bingo’ phrases. Most importantly of all, it means getting the measurement right, rather than use proxy metrics that are really measuring something else entirely. We may prefer to measure attention, but unless we understand what has generated it, it will continue to slip from our grasp.

 

From Atoms to Bits…and Back Again?

February 2nd, 2012

I’ve been re-reading Nicholas Negroponte’s ‘Being Digital’ for a book I’m writing and in many ways it is amazingly prescient about the future digital landscape but, almost twenty years on, it is also clear that the thinking behind it is often way too binary.

One of the most memorable of Negroponte’s predictions was the impending transition from an atom-based economy to one of bits; from material to digital content. To quote; “the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable”. So, no lack of certainty there, then!

Since digital technology really began to fundamentally influence the way we live, I’ve been constantly wondering about that statement. Of course, for much media content, bits are a far more efficient way of delivering, storing, sharing and experiencing. The bit-based digital economy has profoundly affected every media channel and many other areas of our lives, such as communication, information, consumption, education…even democracy.

Binary thinking assumes it is either one thing or another, there can only be one winner. I don’t believe that the shift from atoms to bits is quite so simplistic or predictable!

I have always felt that, the more ubiquitous digital becomes, the more we will value the things it was supposed to replace. For example, as soon as recorded music became commoditised through digital technology, we saw a massive increase in the value of live concerts, merchandising and other elements of the music experience.  (It’s worth remembering, by the way, that recorded music was initially used as a promotional tool to sell sheet music; it’s never been the be all and end all of the music industry).

Live concerts in particular have seen a huge increase in attendances and revenues since the music itself became so easy to access for free. Rather than consumers thinking to themselves ‘oh, that’s a bit of money saved for a rainy day’, they appear to use it to spend money on entertainment in different ways. Although music was one of the first industries to face the massive disruption of digital technology, it has not been a one-way transfer of power. Nor has it been the death of the music industry as is commonly assumed. So, last year saw a 5% fall in total music revenues (lack of major tours were a key part of that) but total music spend is still up on what it was before the financial crisis kicked in. If we add in music publishing – for example, music rights for advertising – then the picture is even rosier.

One area of the music market that I am particularly delighted about (because of my age and my part-time DJ activities) has been the growth in sales of vinyl records. This must have been exactly what Negroponte had in mind when he saw the shift from atoms to bits, and yet sales of vinyl grew by 39% last year and are well up on even their pre-CD years. As a music fan, I totally understand how, as music becomes more commoditised, we want to ‘own’ music in a material form and hear music in the warmer, richer, analogue format that vinyl provides.

 Television is another area which was assumed to be part of this inexorable shift. Of course, TV in the UK is now almost totally digital (and who believed that would be the case when the government announced the 2012 analogue switch-off date?) and yet people spend more money on it than ever before. They spend huge sums on the hardware (made out of atoms, as far as I can tell!) and on accessing the content. Yes, a great deal of that is via online – although not as much as most of the digerati were predicting even a couple of years ago – but the real success story is in our desire to ‘own’ the DVD!

Who would have thought that revenues for  DVD boxed sets of television programmes –  content that is freely available and easily accessible – would be looking so strong twenty years after digital became a reality? I know physical DVD sales are declining (although the British Video Association claims they were up 6% this pre-Christmas, compared to 2010) as people stream or download digital content (often illegally), but sales of TV boxed sets are actually rising! People are still prepared to pay significant sums of money to ‘own’ content that they could access for free via the TV schedules and catch-up services. And yet sales of DVD boxed sets of TV series are taking an increasing share of market, according to data from the International Video Foundation; indeed Screen Digest calculated that TV boxed sets almost tripled their share of the physical DVD market between 2005 and 2008, from 5% to 13% and the recent release of the Downton Abbey boxed set broke all records on Amazon.

I’m not saying that there won’t be a further shift towards digital content, nor that the shift won’t cause downward pressure on revenues, but physical product is still a very important part of the entertainment scene and that alone is a cause for comment so far into the digital age. The fact is, some people prefer physical product for emotional and rational reasons. It brings out the collector in us all, it makes great gifts, it often provides a better user experience and the entertainment producers are finding many innovative ways to increase its attractiveness, through packaging and enhanced or additional  content.

Like so many predictions of death and destruction, the suggestion that physical entertainment products have a limited life span is beginning to look both naive and premature.