How digital assistants will change media research between now and 2028

Recently I was invited to speak in a debate at the Media Research Group (MRG) conference in Bratislava. We had to imagine what media research would look like in 2028.  I chose to concentrate on the effect digital assistants will have.  We were encouraged to be a little controversial and it was an enjoyable theme to warm to.  Here is my script:

If I think back now to media research in 2018 I could laugh.

But I won’t laugh because I’d be using laughter as a heuristic cue for you to process in a low involvement way.

In short, it would be weak communication with your weak human minds.

And I’m happy to say that in 2028 we’ve now eliminated human weakness from media research.

Back in 2018 we dressed human weakness up and gave it the name System 1 Thinking. It’s what we do when we’re not concentrating. It’s automatic, emotional … and weak… thinking. It saves us energy but it’s enormously flawed.

Can you believe this; it’s how we used to make most of our choices?

A whole discipline grew up called Behavioural Economics, about the impact of human weakness on economic decisions.

But a big problem for us researchers is that System One thinking made people unreliable witnesses to their own behaviour.

For example, people say advertising doesn’t influence them, but it does.

16 years ago the psychologist Robert Heath wrote a book about how advertising Seduces the Subconscious. The less attention people pay, the more seduced they are. Did you ever have your subconscious seduced by advertising in 2018? Hashtag Me Too!


But since then we all got Digital Assistants. They became our very own digital PA, our synthetic butlers. Digital Jeeves to our analogue Woosters.

We delegated our choices to them.

They make all decisions for us in high attention System 2.

There were two phases in our willingness to delegate choice to them.


The first phase was about convenience. Even in 2018 we gave away data for convenience – so we were equally happy to give up our choices for the same prize.

It immediately paid off. They made better decisions. We became content.

Studies of human happiness show that people are more content when their purchases fit their lives. Not when they fail to live up to some impossible dream like the subliminal stories in branded advertising. Drinking Nespresso does not a George Clooney make!

So we also gave them our media choices. I used to read The Guardian and The Economist because – it turns out – I thought they made me look dead clever.

My digital assistant pointed out that I was intellectually more suited to watching reruns of Tattoo Fixers – and Extreme Tattoo Fixers – so that’s what I do. It makes me happy.

We called it the “big pivot to content marketing”. Not Content Marketing like Native Advertising Content Marketing (that’s so 2018) but marketing to make me content.

More specifically, marketing to MY digital assistant to help it make ME content.


We’re now in Phase Two.

We now give our digital assistants more control because it guarantees us a longer life.

My digital assistant has full exposure to my biology. He knows what I’m going to die of – and how to delay my death.

Marketing has pivoted to Lifetime Value Marketing. I don’t mean marketing based on someone’s estimated total spend on a brand in their lifetime. That’s so 2018. I mean marketing aimed at adding more value – i.e. years – to my lifetime.

When my assistant orders my shopping an old bearded sailor advertising a brand of fish finger doesn’t influence him. He no longer cares about brands that make me content. He’s interested in finding the right piece of fish to protect my heart.

He puts in front of me the media content that will keep me alive by reducing my stress OR keeping me alert OR helping me sleep OR giving me pertinent information.

His KPI is getting me to my 100th birthday.


Now, my main KPI, as a media researcher, is still consumer insight. But, these days I only talk to digital assistants.

It is refreshing. I can ask them questions a human would struggle with, like:

Why did you buy this brand?


What programmes have you watched?

Qualitative work is fun these days.

I love paired depth interviews with both human and assistant.

It’s a bit like paired depth interviews used to be with married couples….

…Where he’d say:

“I like a bit of chutney on my cheese sandwich”

And she’d say, “You don’t, you’ve never liked chutney on your cheese sandwich”

Except now it’s a bit more like this.

Human, “Telly? Dunno. I just like watching football”

Assistant, “He’s saying that because he’s in his ‘Comfort’ needstate. Give him some sugar and he’ll tell you what he watches in his ‘Indulge’ needstate”


So, digital assistants have brought a new age of media research. It’s a return to asking somebody questions to get answers only this time you get answers.

It’s not asking people for an unreliable commentary of their own life.

Nor is it asking questions of big unstructured datasets that those datasets were never designed to answer. That kind of big data, these days, looks… small. Or… weak.

Digital assistants have only one job, to understand their human inside out, what makes them content and what keeps them alive.

It’s not big data; it’s strong data – about individuals.

And THAT absence of weak data is what characterises media and advertising research in 2028.


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