Think you know the neatly apportioned media-consumption habits of today’s Americans? Consider these snapshots from the country’s heartland last month. Joel, 30 years old, spent an entire workday not just with TV, but with radio as well. Brian, 31, devoted more time to household chores on one Saturday than he did on his computer or watching TV. Vanesa, 24, spent twice as much time napping on a given Sunday than she did with all media combined. Kathy, 52, logged much more time online on a typical weekday than in front of a television.
Is this the media behavior you’d expect from these people?
In an effort to assess how Americans interact with the plethora of media that surrounds them, Adweek enlisted researchers from Ball State University’s Center for Media Design (CMD) to observe those four individuals for one day each (between 12 and 15 hours) during the first week of October. Joel, a barber, is African American; Vanesa, an environmental chemist, is Latina; Kathy, an elementary school principal, and Brian, a real estate agent, are Caucasian. All attended college, are middle- and upper-class wage earners and political moderates. They most certainly are not part of the “media elite” on America’s coasts: They’re residents of either Indianapolis or Muncie, Ind., the latter of which is known to sociologists as Middletown, the quintessential heart of middle America. They’re supposed to represent the consumers who have traditionally been packaged and sold to marketers in dayparts and on rate cards. Turns out they’re not so easily categorized.
Joel and Kathy, observed during their workdays, don’t conform to demographic assumptions at all. Joel spent no time on the computer that day, and Kathy, the oldest of the four, hardly watches TV. Brian, who has a new baby, is spending less time with his Xbox and television. Vanesa, a recent college graduate, isn’t a techno-mad early adopter. She has yet to buy a DVR and, on the Sunday she was observed, spent nearly as much time listening to the radio as she did online.
Clearly, each snapshot is just that: a moment in time. But the very different patterns of media behavior on display underscore the complexity of a world in which consumers increasingly program their own media lives and content is no longer defined by platform.
“It really serves to illustrate the complexity that lies beneath any summary measures and also to underpin the fact that every individual is an anomaly,” says Ball State’s Michael Bloxham, CMD’s director of insight and research. “It shows how communications planning is becoming way more complex than it was five years ago, and as complex as it is now, it will look like milk and honey compared to what it will be like five years from now. It’s not a question of whether consumers will take advantage of all the different media options they have. It’s a question of at what rate they’ll do so.”
Look no further than the Olympics and the presidential election in this watershed year to see how quickly consumers are shifting their media behavior. Americans are migrating to new screens for information and entertainment even as they increase their TV viewership. Marketers that continue to rely on “interrupt and repeat” strategies to grab the attention of these media multitaskers — who are increasingly more interested in “me media” than mass media-do so at their own risk. Social media and Internet video are transforming the Web experience, and portability promises to reinvent the Internet yet again.
“Just as rapidly as we’ve seen Facebook and MySpace change the Internet, we’re going to see a massive reinvention of the Web because of mobile in the next three to four years,” says Greg Kahn, svp of strategic insights at Publicis USA’s Optimedia.
There are hints of that in Adweek’s group in Indiana. While all four have cell phones, Brian’s is an iPhone that he uses for music, e-mail, watching TV and movies, and playing games. He considers it his most essential media device. Brian, like many young consumers, no longer uses a landline at home.
The speed of the ascendancy of multiple screens is remarkable: In a survey this past May by Pew Internet, 73 percent of American adults said they use the Internet, compared to just 16 percent in 1996. That this percentage is soaring without a decline in TV consumption shows the degree to which consumers are increasing their time spent overall with media and multitasking activities.
Adweek’s consumer sample epitomizes how varied TV behavior can be. Of Vanesa and Joel’s total observed media exposure, more than half was TV. When Vanesa, observed on a Sunday, watched, it was her sole focus, and she watched mostly entertainment and sports programming. In Joel’s barbershop, the TV was on mute most of the time as the radio played. Brian, the realtor observed on a Saturday, spent less than one-third of his total media time with live TV, watching news and sports, and spent almost as much time watching recorded videos on his DVR. Kathy, who ended up working late at school in the evening, a time when she might otherwise have watched an hour or two of TV, only caught a few minutes of TV news.
Who spent time online was also counter-intuitive. Joel, one of the youngest to be observed, has no computer in his barbershop and spent no time online at home since his workday was busier than usual. Because Kathy’s long day included the planning of an event, she spent 62 percent of her media time online. Brian logged 17 percent of his media day on the computer offline and another 12 percent online. Vanesa spent 10 percent of her media time online, and almost 20 percent on the phone. (Still, Vanesa says the computer is her most important media device, and she goes to YouTube for videos or clips of things she misses on TV.)
While all four have at least one computer at home and broadband Internet access, none showed great enthusiasm for things like online shopping.
A sign of the times: None of the four cracked open any print media during their observed hours. (Joel said this was unusual for him, as he typically flips through magazines in his shop.) This underscores the plight of American newspapers. Kathy, a fan of National Public Radio, says she doesn’t have time to read the paper. Brian, who gets his news on the Web, hasn’t subscribed to newspapers “for years.” Joel more typically relies on local TV for his news. Vanesa appears to read the paper when someone else is paying for it — at work or when she lived with her parents.
Vanesa was the only one who spent time with social media on their days of observation, having pages on Facebook and MySpace. She uses it primarily to socialize and says she “probably wouldn’t pay much attention to advertising or recommendations based on friends’ purchases” on those sites.
Given the aging demographics of online communities, Kathy, Brian and Joel’s opinions about social media are somewhat surprising. Kathy says she doesn’t like having her personal information online for safety reasons. Brian and Joel, in their early 30s, would seem prime candidates for social media, but Joel says social networks are “for the kids, the younger crowd, college students getting on there to hook up.”
That perception is ironic, given that all four consider word-of-mouth opinions vital in their purchasing decisions. (Interestingly, Kathy and Vanesa said traditional advertising has little bearing on purchase decisions, unlike the men, who said it does play a role.)
The broader view
Overall, these four consumers both conform to and defy popular assumptions about their demographic groups. For a much broader perspective about those groups, consider a 2007 Jupiter Research overview of the media behavior of online adults 18 to 55-plus. In their cumulative 34 hours of weekly media consumption, Jupiter’s consumers reported that TV and the Internet are their favorite media, spending about 12 hours with each. Following that is radio with four hours; recorded music, with two hours; and cell phones, with two hours. They read newspapers and magazines for just one hour each.
That’s quite a change from eight years ago, when the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future began annually monitoring the media habits of more than 2,000 consumers. In 2000, the first year of observation, USC found that Internet users actually consumed more traditional media than their counterparts off the grid, with the exception of TV. But while nearly 55 percent of that sample believed most of the online information they accessed was reliable and accurate, by last year Web reliance grew and trumped traditional media, with 80 percent believing the Internet was their most important source of information, followed by personal sources at 73 percent, TV at 68 percent, and radio and newspapers at 63 percent.
Noticeably absent from the cast of characters in Adweek’s sample group (due to the complications associated with observing minors in a classroom) is the IM-ing, texting, MP3-listening, TV-watching teenager laboring over homework. Last year, however, Ball State observed the school-day life of 15 Indiana teenagers, ages 12-18. Their media habits don’t bode well for traditional print.
Excluding mobile phones, screens accounted for over 60 percent of their daily media time, and two-thirds of the time they spent with print involved school books. The remainder was spent with non-school-related books, and newspapers and magazines had a “negligible presence” in their day. Excluding the school day, Ball State found that those teens used media for 64 percent of the observed day, nearly as much time as adults who were exposed to it throughout their workday. Like their folks, the kids watched TV as a dominant activity, although overall time on the computer matched their TV time, given the fact they use it at school.
No surprise here: When they got home, a third of their time was spent with concurrent media, according to Ball State. With this generation, multi-tasking is the norm.
“The millennials — the people born in the ’80s and ’90s — cram something like 20 hours of media consumption into seven actual hours of time,” says Scott Neslund, Mindshare North America CEO. “Those kinds of habits greatly increase their ability to ignore commercial messages.”
Their elders’ journey from Internet dial-up access to broadband — now in 55 percent of homes, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project — sheds light on how consumers have come to incorporate more media in their routines than ever before. When USC’s Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future started following its sample group, most of them used dial-up access. That’s a very disruptive technology, claims Jeffrey Cole, the center’s director, with consumers leaving family members to go off to a back room two to three times a day for 20 or 30 minutes. Broadband is an integrative activity, he says, taking place within the conversations and rhythms of the day. Cole and his colleagues saw a marked change with the adoption of broadband. People started moving their computers into places like the kitchen and family room — the hubs of home activity.
Cole and his colleagues describe the Internet as the defining technology of our generation, one that “has the potential to provide more communications power, purchasing capability and knowledge-gathering outreach than print and electronic media combined.”
Always on, the Web’s become as ubiquitous as electricity, powering the behavior of previously passive audiences who now participate as media content creators. It’s become an expression and extension of their offline activities and communities, empowering them as decision makers and voters. The Web’s unfiltered information gives it potent authority in their lives.
“Consumers now want to be like God,” says Denuo CEO Rishad Tobaccowala. “They don’t want to be limited by space or time.”
Viewers who have been stuck for decades with reruns are seizing control of their entertainment. Just how quickly Americans are changing their habits played out recently in comedian Tina Fey’s portrayal of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. According to cross-platform research firm Integrated Media Measurement, 67 percent of those who saw one of Fey’s three skits saw it on a DVR or online, compared to the 33 percent who actually watched in real time on Saturday Night Live. Amanda Welsh, vp of research for IMM, said the company had never seen such huge time-shifted numbers.
Online video is fast changing the face of the Internet. It’s not just amateur hour on YouTube anymore, as the quality of content improves and is increasingly embedded into Web sites. Consumers are upgrading their monitors and using services like Netflix to stream movies. They’re going to broadcasters’ Web sites to view some of the programs they used to watch on TV. With Hulu, the video site operated by NBC Universal and News Corp. that dominates its online media space, viewers can choose their ad options before the program begins and rate the advertiser spots they see.
Surging sales of high-definition, plasma flat screens indicate couch potatoes aren’t giving up their remotes any time soon. But they are changing habits to incorporate more time online. Earlier this year, NBC looked at episodic viewing on its Web site after original airing. Fifty-four percent of viewers said they hadn’t seen the shows before or were sampling a series for the first time. About three-quarters of those samplers wound up watching again, both online and off, says Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal. In the new TV season, 83 percent of those watching online say they’re doing so because they missed the original airing. “Online is becoming a personal DVR,” says Wurtzel.
The online Olympics
NBC’s media coverage of the Beijing Olympics provided another glimpse of how people customize their viewing habits. The network’s long-tail event coverage on the Web played to enthusiast interests of not widely popular sports. Some 43 percent of those who viewed online did so to see highlights after word-of-mouth recommendations. Wurtzel says those who went to nbcolympics.com watched twice as much coverage on TV as those who didn’t, while one-third of TV viewers went online to re-watch events. Perhaps most intriguing were the viral communities that sprung up. Of the 1.6 million total streams of the 4 x 100-meter relay for the U.S. men’s swim team featuring Michael Phelps, 1.3 million were shared among friends online.
“Now we’re seeing a shift in the Internet,” observes Jon Gibs, vp of media analytics at Nielsen Online. “In the past it was very much about Web pages. Now, we’re moving from the Internet as a newspaper to some form of broadcasting, long-form programming, video, longtime participation, self-creation, blogging, YouTube.”
There’s no better example this year of the Web’s arrival as a communications tool than Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. If the Republicans dominate talk radio, the Democrats, with their younger-skewing voters, are quickly taking over the Internet — a phenomenon first seen in Howard Dean’s presidential efforts in the party’s primary four years ago. Obama created a masterful grassroots connection with voters hungry for change.
“Traditionally we’ve seen the Web as a push mechanism. A candidate says, ‘I will have a Web site listing my positions [and] press coverage,’ ” says Nielsen’s Gibs. “Obama shows you can create a social network around a concept — the concept being him — and exist outside a social-network operator like Facebook. He’s also proven his ability to use that community to raise contributions and distribute messages. It’s integrated in a way I’ve not seen before.”
More generally, this political season has redefined how consumers obtain their information across media platforms, with media like YouTube, Facebook and citizen-journalist sites like The Huffington Post playing a new role. From political beliefs and corporate accountability to environmental concerns, Americans are becoming activists, and new-media communities are fueling those beliefs.
Last year, USC’s Center for the Digital Future found “profound social impact” produced by growing participation in online communities. Three-quarters of members said they participate in groups related to social causes, with a whopping 87 percent participating in causes that were new to them since their involvement in social networks began.
In a development unimaginable even five years ago, USC’s researchers found that more than half of the consumers they observe — 55 percent — say they already feel as strongly about their online groups as they do their offline communities. Facebook, founded in 2004, is now the world’s fourth-most-trafficked site, with some 120 million active users. No longer just a university phenomenon, more than half of its members are outside of college and its fastest-growing demographic is adults 25 and older.
The social category is constantly reinventing itself. The 2-year-old microblogging community Twitter emerged as the fastest-growing U.S. social network in September, posting a 343 percent spike in growth to now include nearly 2.4 million users, per Nielsen Online.
Facebook’s members are logging on to hang out in their rowdy online bar — and they don’t appreciate the advertiser interruptions at the party. Older consumers seem just as willing to compare notes over a glass of a wine at places like the fast-growing Gather.com. With a median age of 42, the 2-year-old site has attracted advertisers including Kraft, Nestle, American Express, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Schwab, Amtrak and Starbucks. Gather’s 500,000 members cascade reviews and recommendations through their ranks.
No matter the reasons people consume new media-information, entertainment, political participation, companionship, social activism — most experts agree it’s transforming people’s lives in profound ways. One question, then, is at what cost comes that constant flow of digital stimulation and access?
One aspect that behavioral psychologists are studying is the impact this immersion in digital technology has on the cognitive development of children. Futurist and author Marc Prensky allows that “the brain is plastic and responds to inputs accordingly.” He likens the growing generation gap to learning a language. Kids today are digital native speakers, he notes, while their parents are digital immigrants, acquiring their skills rather than growing up with easy fluency. He adds that native speakers want change and speed in receiving information very quickly. “Brand loyalty is dead with this group,” he says. “They like Apple, but if someone out-Apples Apple, they move on.”
Given their immersion in the digital world, children’s outlook from an early age is global. Based on the amount of gaming they do, they’re more comfortable with the notion of risk and making lots of decisions.
The digital world is also home to emerging culture and cutting-edge information, and there are growing concerns about the gap between those who embrace it and those who do not during this transitional era.
“I worry that there’s a growing digital divide out there: People who exploit [and] maximize technology, and people who do not,” observes Steve Rubel, vp, director of insight, at Edelman Digital. “It’s about being a much more informed, more powerful citizen.”
It’s also, of course, about the growing challenge for marketers to reach both sides of the divide. As Rubel asks, “How are marketers going to figure out the technological acumen of their targets?” That challenge will be magnified as traditional offline purchase behavior becomes more integrated with media technology.
As American TVs and mobile devices become increasingly sophisticated, for instance, Optimedia’s Kahn sees a big compression in the time it takes for digitally sophisticated consumers to go from awareness to engagement to purchase.
Another effect of today’s multiple-screen world may be increasing media fatigue. Denuo’s Tobaccowala predicts there will be pushback from fatigued consumers trying to keep up with their digital lives. “We’ll see an increasingly two-speed world,” he says. “People are analog by nature, and you’ll see more and more of them going off the grid, going to the spa, taking holidays without e-mail, etc.”
How do brands fit in?
Overwhelmed maybe, omnipotent definitely — at least in their role as brand consumers. No longer passive recipients of spin, the digital revolution empowers a generation of people who revel in creating conversations around brands. In this new era, reputation management is becoming as important as brand management, and marketers, schooled in mass media, need to grasp the subtleties and nuance required in engaging consumers on their own terms, wherever and whenever that may be.
Online communities are an obvious place to reach out to them, but how to deftly fit in there is not so clear. Last year’s launch of BMW’s entry-level 1 Series, which had a strong Facebook presence, didn’t overtly shill for the car. BMW encouraged members to design and send virtual vehicles and keys to friends as well as create and share virtual road trips. Over 500,000 people voted for the best design, and BMW’s site traffic increased 25 percent, with much of that going to the 1 Series microsite. Sales were up 13 percent over expectations, and anecdotal remarks made on auto blogs showed that some consumers spent five to six hours working on their car design — dream brand engagement for marketers used to 30-second spurts of attention.
“Going forward, we’re reassured we could launch a vehicle with these tools. We’ll use the Internet as a [way] to market niche vehicles where mass reach is not the answer,” says Pat McKenna, BMW North American marketing chief.
Online communities are as much about listening as they are about influencing those conversations. In a marketing world where customer service is becoming an adjunct to companies’ media investment, marketers underestimate its manifestations, whether offline at the retail level or online, says Joel Rubinson, chief research officer at the Advertising Research Foundation.
“Most organizations aren’t even good in their own backyards — customer care centers — let alone in the consumer’s backyard,” he says. “What people say about you on Twitter is just as important as what you hear in your own backyard.”
As could be expected with consumers’ migration to the Web — and as seen in Adweek’s Ball State consumers — unfiltered word-of-mouth experience is often more persuasive than conventional media advertising.
Paul Woolmington, a founding partner of Naked Communications, points to the Nike+ sports kit — a device that measures and records the distance and pace of a walk or run — as a glimpse of the industry’s direction. “Branded utility is really powerful marketing. Do consumers even need advertising?” he asks.
More dispassionate observers cite the urgency of industry reinvention in what is becoming a data-driven business. In a worldwide survey last year of consumers and ad executives, the IBM Institute for Business Value predicted that the next five years will hold more change for the ad industry than the previous 50. IBM posed the question of whether advertisers will need traditional agencies.
“Agencies need to merge the creative process with granulation. They need to upgrade their analytical skills and become an insights broker,” says Louisa Shipnuck, an IBM Media and Entertainment Industry global business development exec. “Their great challenge is to bring all their vast knowledge of consumers to marketing data and make it relevant.”
That’s not lost on marketers like Steve Ekdahl, director of brand marketing at Holiday Inn Express, who gushes over his new ability to measure and analyze traffic to the brand’s The Smart Show business travelers’ Web site, which uses original video, a blog, search engine, sponsorships and promotions.
“Last year we had lots of site-level [attitudinal] metrics, but the missing piece was transactional data and this year we have it,” he says. “We’ll have a clear view of pre- and post-stay behavior for those watching The Smart Show and then staying at Holiday Inn Express. This is a much more engaging, richer connection in an environment that’s deeper than passing a billboard or seeing a 30-second spot.”
Will all that data leaden the inspiration behind great storytelling?
“Audience measurement and an overabundance of data is nothing new, says Eric Hirshberg, president and chief creative officer at Deustch/LA. “If you wanted to let a quasi-scientific process drive creative, you could have done that 10 years ago. The key for the future in the age of the media omnivore is not just about getting consumer attention. We need to find new ways to interrupt patterns.”
Traditional agencies aren’t faring well in keeping up with those changing patterns, according to some attendees at last month’s Association of National Advertisers conference. Gary Elliott, Hewlett-Packard’s vp, brand marketing, said his agency relationships lacked “speed to market” and that HP is looking to work directly with media companies. Charles Schwab CMO Becky Saeger echoes such sentiments: “More and more, the agencies are almost in the way.”
As any middleman knows, that role on the Internet is tricky, especially as marketing is increasingly outsourced to consumers. “In 30 years, advertising won’t be recognizable by today’s standards,” says Rob Bagot, executive cd of McCann Worldgroup, San Francisco. “It will be cooked into the experiences people live.”