We're living on a different planet
Market research became established in the 1930s, initially as a way of providing data with which to sell media. But it evolved in response to advances in psychology and sociology, constantly developing new ways of gaining insight into consumer and social behaviours.
At its core, though, is a recognition that 'we' - the commissioners of the research - are not like 'them', the respondents. It is based on the recognition that it is not enough to use our own experiences to really understand the consumer because we are naturally biased, sensitised and totally unrepresentative of the 'average' consumer.
When I worked in commercial TV in the 1980s, the occasional programme-maker would sniffily complain that the research about their programme didn't represent the chatter they were hearing in their local wine bar. But even they would grudgingly accept that the wine bar patrons of Primrose Hill weren't necessarily the most representative of samples, and move on.
For most of the 1990s that desire to listen to 'the man on the Clapham omnibus' held firm, until the emergence of web 2.0, when we became convinced that the emerging torrent of big data would make his voice redundant. That is when things really began to change.
The accent on de-contextualised, often misleading analytics to reinforce our existing views based on our own subjective experiences has relegated traditional, scientific, quality-controlled market research to the margins in many cases. After all, how many of the big, digital businesses actually talk to real consumers?
I now regularly hear the following refrain:
"I simply don't believe that because I never do x (e.g. watch TV ads at normal speed, listen to local radio or pay for content) any longer and neither do any of my friends."
Well, maybe they don't but a cursory dismissal of quality-controlled, peer-reviewed evidence on the basis of "me and my friends don't do that" would be reckless at any time. Now evidence has emerged to suggest that we media professionals are far less representative of the general consumer than we would have ever thought.
The research comes from the USA's respected Media Behavior Institute (OK, it's Americans but I think the results would be even more dramatic in the UK) which conducted a survey of media professionals, using the same methodology as US Touchpoints and then matched them to a Touchpoints consumer sample to compare their media usage.
The media professionals' internet usage was astonishing. More than half (53%) of their waking time is spent interacting with email and more than a quarter (28%) consists of more general online access; this compares with 20% and 15% respectively for the general population.
An impressive 92% of the media pros used mobile apps and their overall usage was more than three times higher than the average consumer. Similar disparities were discovered for most forms of digital media usage - including social network use and tablet ownership.
Not surprisingly, there is not enough time in the day to enjoy the 'traditional' media experiences anything like as much as normal mortals. Radio and television were particularly under-consumed; far less than half the levels of the general population. Only print bucked the trend; 42% of media professionals read some form of print media daily compared to only 25% of consumers.
This corresponds to another research finding I came across recently, one of the hidden headlines in Deloitte's always-excellent research into the state of the TV nation shows in stark detail just how much the general population cares about the technology we spend so much time analysing and hyping up.
Overall, less than 4% (1 in 25 people) showed a consistent and committed interest in technology. In fact, the percentage of the general population who feel statements such as "I would pay more to get the latest products first", "I buy magazines or look on the internet for new technology products" or "amongst my friends, I am usually first to get new gadgets or technology" describe them well are dwarfed by the 5 or 6 times as many who claim this is nothing like them.
It is interesting to me that the spend on media - based on media time share - correlates much more closely with the media professionals' media habits than it does those of the general population. Could it be that despite the massive amounts of data available to media planners, they are more likely to use the rule of thumb that all consumers must be like them and therefore can be reached in the same ways?
Whatever the answer there has never been a greater need for objective, representative research to be applied to these decisions because we are incapable of making them based on our own experiences.
Thank you for a great post. I find myself agreeing a lot with what you say and you highlight really well just how much we all - not just researchers - need to reflexively acknowledge, consider and take into account our own 'positions' e.g. our experiences may be very different from those people we are researching. However, I think there is an issue here that arises from this, namely that we can overplay this difference. We do this on a day by day basis when we use objectifying language such as 'consumers' and 'users' to describe people, as though they are somehow different from us. It also reduces people to particular roles when in fact the kind of approach you are talking about demands that we understand that people are complex, with different goals, experiences and aspirations.
This is a point that I make to students, that the industry has a brilliant talent for targeting AB and some aspect of Cs (buyers classify as these) who live in London and are under 25.
Unfortunately, that's not of much use if you have an FMCG female main shopper who lives on a Newcastle housing estate as a target market. She may well have access to digital technology but the role it plays in her life is not going to be the same as your average media executive.
Hence we give students case studies that do not rely on just researching themselves. Variations in use by different groups have been studied by the industry. Carat produced some very good research on this. It may also vary in terms of the digital infrastructure available in different parts of the UK. Not everyone has super speed broadband, which can impact on the effectiveness of some digital campaigns, an issue that we as a university are researching at the moment.
Establishing differences by region used to be a good way of overcoming this and the old ITV regions were very good at getting this point of difference over to the industry, as Dave knowsfrom his days at Tyne Tees. Perhaps media owners and agencies might look to revisit this? Because the logical consequence of what Dave is saying is that does this difference impact on how successful digital campaigns are against non-metro single audiences living north of Watford?
David thanks for a thought provoking article, which highlights some really good material on the US Media Behaviour Institute's site. I do not disagree with your point of view but the use of "empirical analysis" from MBI's US Touchpoints should be treated with some caution. The MBI New York sample was only 15 media professionals (and I suspect none from MEC!) using a mobile app-based diary for just one day, so hardly representative of Madison Avenue overall.
MEC Global will continue to apply robust research principles to our strategic planning and communication executions across all the POE channels, based on initial in-depth consumer insights, segmentations and purchase pathways/media touchpoints analysis for each separate Client's brands' objectives.