The changing role of media insight teams

Train tracksThis month I was asked to guest lecture to the MBA students at Henley Business School. I asked fellow media research freelancer, Ozoda Muminova, to co-lecture with me.

When I worked at The Telegraph she was at The Guardian, a Fleet Street rivalry we hammed up. Our lecture was about the role of research and insight in a disrupted media industry.

We began by talking about the traditional role of insight departments in newsbrands, demonstrating the value of the audience they could uniquely reach.

To a degree it was about playing with stereotypes; turning negative into positive in agency minds.

If Guardian readers were tree huggers they could be positioned as progressive. If Telegraph readers were retired, they could be positioned as baby boomers that have 85% of the nation’s wealth.

Stereotypes were easy because there was very little crossover. Only 13% of Guardian newspaper readers read a Telegraph newspaper over a week.

However, the industry was already subject to digital disruption. Guardian readers look a lot more like Telegraph readers online than is the case offline. Many online readers read both. 36% of online Guardian readers read telegraph.co.uk in a week.  Over a month it reaches three quarters.

In these circumstances it’s harder to just play the stereotype game. It’s also harder to claim you reach a hard to reach audience. It’s harder still when Facebook ads reach 90%+ of your audience.

Disruption brought three issues to our shores.

It wrecked the idea that newspaper audiences were loyal; they flit between newsbrands online.

It brought an oversupply of ad inventory. Accenture estimate the average Brit sees 1,009 ads daily.

It pushed a lot of ad spend online, encouraged by low prices – and measurability.

These factors pushed media insight teams in two directions. One called maths and the other, magic.

The measurability of online meant insight teams embraced digital analytics. We now measured page views, unique user browsers, click through, views per visit, repeat visits, shares, tweets, comments, scroll depth, dwell time and downstream journeys.

However, the measurability of digital media increased the demand for measures of ROI offline too. More regularly we measured intention-to-purchase, brand awareness, favourability, likeability, word-of-mouth, share-of-voice, time spent, purchase funnels and eye movement. We’re in the era of ad effectiveness case studies.

Such measurability has led to ‘guarantees’. The Telegraph, reported Digiday, is offering, “guarantees around campaign awareness, propensity to purchase and advocacy”.

But much depends on the power of the creative, the potency of the offer and product, competitive activity, previous activity and heritage. Predicting can be unpredictable.

Easy measurability has also led to short-termism. ROI is a poor indicator of long-term brand building, says the IPA.

Moving to the magic.

It’s no longer enough for media companies to say what audiences they reach; they need to say how they engage them too.

Of increasing importance are the elements that engage; like environment, trust, mindset and moment. Of great interest nowadays are the very editors, writers, filmmakers, photographers and designers who engage audiences every day.  What do they do and how can advertisers harness it?

These things are particularly important as buying agencies find themselves no longer just buying space to reach audiences, but buying the ability to bring creative ideas to life at the right time, in the right environment.

A great example is the cover-wrap on the Evening Standard that advertised the release of the film Dunkirk with original WW2 Evening Standard headlines.

That a longstanding newspaper should use its own archive of editorial to publicise a historical film is a simple idea. However, the Standard had to demonstrate that their newspaper was the right one to do it.

The Standard’s ad effectiveness case studies showed the likely exposure of London’s commuters to a Standard coverwrap and the extent to which it could influence their behaviour (the maths). Research showing that London’s commuters are entertainment focused as they leave work provided the ‘magic’. The Standard occupies the ‘magic moment’ to engage them.

I’m a little biased, of course, having run the Standard’s research team, but the research that describes the magic after work moments, “Evening Catch”, was described by Clare Peters, head of planning at MGOMD, at a recent Mediatel event, as providing A1 insight into the behaviours that media brands can elicit.

Another example of ‘the magic’ is Metro and MailOnline’s Millennial Rules project. Forgive me, reader – it’s another of my projects.  Its homepage not only states that these brands have an enormous reach of millennials, they also “really understand them too”. Reach must now come with ways to engage.

The project contains nine rules for marketing to millennials. Harness millennials’ creativity in your campaign, it suggests; help them research purchases online and remember they like advertising that fits the environment.

Insight teams are increasingly helping media brands inspire advertising that really fits the environment. In-house content marketing operations like Guardian Labs and Telegraph Spark take pride in being insight led.

In that context the ‘spark’ can be ignited by the smallest of insights. It might have come from a comment in a focus group or a big data trawl.

In summary, the story of research and insight in media owner companies plots a move on from just measuring the reach of hard to reach audiences and turning negative stereotypes into positive ones. Nowadays, the role is more about measurability of ad effectiveness and sparking engaging ideas.  It’s about maths and magic, proving effectiveness and sparking creativity.

But this isn’t the destination station.  Media and advertising are constantly evolving and there’s surely another stop just down the line.  Who knows where we’ll end up.

We might end up back at the start.  If the debate in the US about net neutrality leads to a ‘splinternet’, where some sites are blocked by service providers in favour of rival sites they own or have deals with, we might yet see a return to mainly defending hard to reach audiences.  What a twist that would be.

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