As a species, we are not good at change.
In a nutshell
- Commercial messages offer less value and are now less relevant in traditional media channels due to a rapidly expanding oversupply of media options available to people.
- The explosion of digital and social channels has made advertising less accepted.
- Brands and their marketing no longer have the cultural relevance they used to, thanks to social media’s ability to connect crowds and rapidly disseminate cultural change. This means that marketing communications that originate from internal ideas and are disseminated via mass media will no longer find traction as easily.
- We may find more success in flipping traditional media models to start marketing thinking from a social space. Identifying emerging crowd cultures, aligning with cultural change rather than leading it, shifting with flashpoints to remain relevant. And translating this into how we approach mass media, rather than the other way around.
Indeed, at a cognitive and biological level we outright fear it. When faced with ideas or data that threatens pre-existing beliefs, we respond much in the same way that our ancestors might have when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. Our emotions kick in before our rational brain, presenting fight or flight as solutions long before reasoning crosses our minds. And when reasoning does kick in, the colouring effect of that initial flood of emotion means that often our cognitive activity devoted to understanding new information more closely resembles rationalising rather than actual reason. We fight to hold onto what exists already, regardless of how rationally right it is.
Understanding this truth about our own brains helps make sense of lots of things in the world – from why climate change denial occurs in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, right through to why Two and A Half Men managed to run for 12 seasons before, mercifully, being put down.
It also helps us understand something about why our practices in the field of marketing—and how we use media to drive marketing success—have taken so much time to even begin to shift, despite massive changes in what we know about how people and brands work, and a fundamental change in how the world itself actually works.
What’s interesting, in considering these largely accepted changes, is to question how much corresponding change we have achieved in applying these ideas to how we think about using media to achieve success.
Sure, we have accepted that media has fragmented, and we have responded in kind by increasing our coverage of emerging channels. And likewise we have responded to the emergence of social media by invading this space with sponsored messages. But how much have we really thought about what these fundamental changes mean to what will drive success for marketing via our media thinking? What should our playbook look like in media as a response to these changes?
New game, new rules
We should probably start at the beginning, by looking at how the traditional media market has changed. There is endless talk on media fragmentation, but what does this actually look like in reality for a typical household?
In 2013, the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business ran its latest in a series of studies looking at how much media was available to, and used by American consumers, using data inflows from industry to accurately measure the market. It found two fascinating insights into the media market and how it was changing.
First, the study showed media available for consumption by people is increasing rapidly. In 1980, the typical household received 9.8 gigabytes of information a day, primarily from TV and radio. By 2012, this had increased to 63 gigabytes, with the vast majority of increased data supply coming from digital channels, such as general internet use, social media and streaming video. And, importantly, the rate at which media was becoming available to households was increasing dramatically. From 2008 onwards, the rate of media data supply to a typical household had reached a point where it doubled every two years.
The second interesting point from the USC study, is that while media supply is increasing radically, actual consumption of media by people is not keeping anywhere near pace with this change.
From 2008 onwards – the time where media content available started doubling every two years – the growth in linear hours of content actually consumed by people was only 5 percent per annum, from 11 hours a day to 14 hours a day.
When you put together these facts around media hours available and hours used, the ratio of media supply to consumption is escalating rapidly. To put this in a meaningful context, if you went right back to 1960 there was 82 minutes of content available for every minute used by people. By 2005 this had reached 884 minutes available to every minute used. And by 2015 the figure sat at a staggering 2,000-plus minutes available to every minute used.
The upshot of all of this, is that our characterisation of transformation in the media landscape should not just be one that highlights fragmentation and increased supply, but one that accepts a rising imbalance between supply and demand. Because this is where issues will likely be found for the application of media to commercial purposes.
Indeed, oversupply creates a couple of very interesting scenarios for anyone looking to harness media to convey commercial messages. First, because we have such a vast excess of media available compared to our needs, as users we can afford to be very choosy about what content we engage with. In fact, we have to be to avoid cognitive overload. As such, there are likely to be more ‘active’ viewing/listening occasions in the mix, and with this an increased mental agitation with the interference of unwanted commercial messages. They are not washing over us in a passive way, like they were in the days of TV and radio-dominated media supply, they are there in front of us, delaying our access to the content we wish to view, distracting our attention.
Perhaps even more importantly, because there is such a huge supply of content and options for us in media compared to our needs, we inherently value less the contribution of any commercial sponsor in bringing us this content.
In the past, with limited options available, the value exchange of watching ads in return for being able to access Magnum P.I. on a Friday night was favourable to the viewer, because without this sponsorship, there would be little else available. Now the deal is not so palatable. The commercial message is less relevant to us.
"In essence, oversupply of media means that brands and advertising are less relevant because they offer us less value in their presence."
In essence, oversupply of media means that brands and advertising are less relevant because they offer us less value in their presence.
Now, expanding this point regarding value and relevance out, the impact for commercial users of media is further exacerbated when we consider the nature of the media channels which are contributing much of the growth in available supply information for people – namely, digital and social ones.
Not in my newsfeed
As opposed to TV, radio and print, whose commercial models were deeply rooted in ad revenue from inception, these new channels have often been seeded with the public on a very different value basis. Social media typically has no advertising presence in its founding period, and many digital channels such as Spotify or Netflix allow the user to subscribe out of the interruption of ads.
As such, when our usage of these media channels grows, so too does our exposure to advertising-free media models. Rather than commercial messages being the norm in life across media, they become more noticeable as an intrusion. Especially when they start to appear in spaces like our social media feeds, or streaming media content, invading what was once understood as ‘private’ spaces.
Highlighting this point, the Wall Street Journal recently quoted a survey showing the number of people finding online video ads more annoying than TV ads was triple that of the reverse scenario.
And this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. One of our big learnings from behavioural economists, is that context plays an important role in helping us determine the value of things—which is why a t-shirt sold in a high fashion boutique can be seen as providing more value than essentially the same one sold in Kmart.
Channel and environmental context is important for our acceptance and value attribution with advertising, and the changing channel mix within the expanding media landscape is placing further pressure on the value equation.
So, in considering what a media playbook would look like in order to drive success under the new marketing paradigm, we must recognise: firstly, that commercial messages offer less value and are now less relevant in traditional media channels due to a rapidly expanding oversupply of media options available to people; and secondly, that that the explosion of digital and social channels has made advertising less accepted.