Brainwaves - Research needs a new spin in the quest for channel neutrality

Media research - Criticism of media currencies was one of the hot topics at the recent MRG conference. Brian Jacobs argues that an over-reliance on traditional research will hinder channel neutral planning and the development of new communication opportunities.

This article is about the importance of original thinking and creativity in channel planning.

It is also about why the media research business has to move on from worrying about technique if it is to play its rightful role as a key element in communication planning.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The media world has changed dramatically. We all know the story – changes in technology and in legislation leading to a proliferation in media channels, leading in turn to audience fragmentation.

Link of all of this with increasingly time-starved consumers, and the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day, and we arrive at a point where advertisers need to consider multiple alternatives to reach and connect with their target.

The choices for advertisers are nearly endless.

Today we can pay spokesmen to engage likely looking consumers in bars in order to persuade them to try a new drink; we can pay London taxi drivers to extol the virtues of a particular airline to Heathrow bound passengers, and so on. We are increasingly limited only by our imaginations, and our good sense, where once we were limited by technology, by availability, or by quasigovernmental regulations.

It is within this world that channel neutral planning has emerged as an issue.

The basic concept has been around for years, what is new is the planning aspect, the applying of a discipline to the selection of channels.

Channel neutral planning starts with the business issue, moves into the marketing and communication task, defines the most appropriate, valuable, influential people that we wish to talk to, settles on where, when and in what mood we will be most welcome to have that dialogue, and then decides what we should say to them.

If an issue is best addressed by PR, or an event, or a viral, word of mouth campaign, or even by advertising, by any combination of communication channels, then so be it.

What is important is to meet the client’s business objectives effectively and efficiently using whichever communication channels are most appropriate.

Channel neutral planning is not just about stunts – although stunts may forma crucial part of the plan. It is not just about allocation systems, although allocation systems come in useful as a part of the process.

It is not just about black boxes and complex software, although they too may play a part.

It is about a mix of art and science, of creativity and business problem solving, of collaboration amongst all stakeholders. And it’s about research and media measurement.

What media measurement challenges are thrown up by channel neutral planning? Let’s place this question in context. The majority of media research ever done, anywhere, focuses on a single medium and exists primarily to provide a currency for the buying of airtime or space.

It is paid for primarily by the media owners – who need to provide advertisers with the ammunition to use each medium properly.

I know I’m generalising; I am familiar with audience research funding mechanisms and with single-source studies like the TGI, and with the argument that advertisers ultimately pay for everything, but the basics are as I describe them.

Given this, media measurement as currently structured must remain single medium in focus.

Why would a TV broadcaster want to make the case for mixed media schedules (excepting for one moment those large multimedia conglomerates who, at a corporate level might want to do exactly this for strong commercial reasons)? Plus every medium has specific characteristics that need to be reflected in how the medium is measured.

Media measurement is stuck in a world in which improvements are made to technique rather than to principle. The media research industry likes nothing better in my experience than arguing techniques – it is fundamentally uneasy discussing quantum leaps.

A while back I spoke at an industry conference on how I saw the future development of print readership research.

I stated that the ideal planning tool was to know how many people saw my ad in a particular issue of a particular publication, and acted on it, either behaviourally or attitudinally.

I then went down the steps of a pyramid from this ideal to the bottom step, where we measure the number of people who read or look at an average issue of a particular publication.

Of course, there are multiple steps from the bottom up to the top.

M y point was not that we should fly to the top in one mighty leap, but rather that we should keep the ideal destination in mind, and try to move up gradually over years.

As you will have guessed, we seem stuck on the bottom level. I gave this presentation in 1979.

I think it’s very disappointing that the media research industry has not evolved.

For years, we have relied on media owners to fund media research. That’s fine as long as the emphasis is on ‘currency’ measures focussed on exposure.

These measures are key and will continue to evolve in the light of new technologies, new media forms and so on.

In a channel neutral world we need more advertiser-specific studies, as each solution is by definition bespoke, and unique.

It’s up to the research community working in concert with the media agencies to address these issues, and to provide solutions to our clients, who need to fund them.

Funds could be generated through a closer link between client media and research functions, and indeed budgets.

There needs to be a greater emphasis on upfront planning, using all available research, and on the development of agency systems designed to monitor the ‘outcome’ of activity (be it awareness, sales, attitude shifts, whatever) as opposed to the ‘output’ (ratings, reach etc).

Then agencies need to buy to plan, as opposed to budget. Given the way that agencies work – this alone will save money.

Over time, as planning systems become smarter the buy to plan method would not in itself generate funds – but by then we should have moved on to the principle of building a research line into the media plan in just the same way we used to build in a production cost line.

The aim would be to save money from the media budget to learn more, thus increasing effectiveness next time around.

Advertisers and their partners need to think beyond the use of classical audience measurement techniques in assessing the impact of integrated communication programmes. It is not the case that only measured media get results, nor is it the case that because a particular communication channel has no measured audience that it has no audience, or has no effect on consumers.

The direct response industry and anyone who has ever written a TV strategy featuring the use of zero-rating programmes will attest to this.

The sort of challenges we face in a channel neutral world take us beyond audience statistics.

How does the consumer response to a paid-for advertisement differ from that generated by an editorial? Is one more believable or more trustworthy than another? Does one build on the other or are they at odds with one another? How can the planner ensure that multiple channel use builds synergy rather than segmenting effect? Today we tackle these issues far too often from single-medium studies, make a number of assumptions, chuck everything into a computer programme and await the outcome. When the ‘answer’ arrives we treat it with reverence.

This is not communication planning – it is optimisation of data by computer.

Great channel planning solutions, like great creative ideas emerge from a rigorous understanding of the brand, the market, the consumer, the very world in which the brand exists.

Can we use research to quantify every last thing? Possibly, but not within the bounds of reasonable cost.

Can research help us understand how best to plan across channels, or to improve how we use a single channel? Yes, but we need to look beyond audience data to all forms of data and research – both quantitative and qualitative.

We need to open our minds to different ways of communicating with consumers. Consumers don’t see reach or frequency – they see, notice and are influenced by breakthrough ideas.

Never considering an option unless it is comprehensively measured stifles creativity in channel planning. Demanding definitive numbers for each and every option, as if it were TV, will inhibit the development of integrated communication planning.

It will encourage a siloed approach to communication, with every channel considered solely within its own small universe. And, ultimately it will cause businesses to waste money at exactly the same time that the advertiser’s media controller or procurement officer thinks he is saving money through media efficiencies calculated on often false assumptions on how communication works.

We all know from personal experiences the power of a message that hits all of the right emotional buttons, at the right time, and across multiple channels.

Synergy, if done well, works.

Yet for some reason in many cases we ignore personal experience because we don’t have the numbers. We would rather have the safe option – because we can justify it through the audience numbers.

A new and lateral approach to media research is needed to sit alongside the exciting world of channel neutral planning.

Brian Jacobs, is executive vice-president, Global Media Unit, at Millward Brown

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