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Why I hate the digital consumer

10 Jun 2014  |  Richard Marks 
Why I hate the digital consumer

Richard Marks of Research The Media looks at the true meaning of the words we use to describe media behaviour and suggests that whilst some definitions need clarifying, others should be banned outright - in particular the words 'digital' and 'consumer'.

This month's column is looking at words and their true meanings - the semantics of media research. There has been a lot of focus on research methodology and on the possible impact of Big Data recently, but regardless of how the data is collected, are we actually describing media usage itself in the right way? Is our lexicon for characterising each medium and its users still valid?

Firstly let's look at the metrics we use to describe media usage itself...

We talk about TV 'viewers' - which is ironic, given that the viewing actually measured has little to do with viewing. The definition in the UK (and many other countries) is 'presence in the room', not active viewing.

Meanwhile it is primarily measured using sound not vision, as the PeopleMeters mainly use audio-matching technology to identify what is being watched, which is combined with the panel members pressing buttons to show they are in the room.

So what about 'presence in the room'? The rise of second screening is great news for TV, as surveys like Thinkbox's Screen Life show: it is keeping people in the same room as the television. However, it does raise the issue of the level of attentiveness to the largest screen in the room and whether a secondary metric or viewing 'gold standard' is needed.

Arguably 'readership' is the metric that has the most straightforward link between metric and methodology."

Undoubtedly general entertainment shows are more likely to be background noise for some in the room than the latest gloomy Nordic Noir drama or Game Of Thrones bloodbath. However, we should not get carried away and assume that the idea that some 'viewers' may not be viewing all the time is in any way a new phenomenon or somehow indicative of a hidden 'erosion' of TV's strength as a medium. The difference is that instead of reaching for a magazine we now pick up a smartphone or tablet.

So 'viewers' remains valid as a term, provided we remember how it is defined. However, we may well need to move on from presence in the room to define a viewer, not least when BARB's Dovetail initiative introduces server data from smartphones and tablets into the currency, personal devices for which the presence of other people in the room may largely be irrelevant.

When it comes to radio, 'listening' has a similar implication of active engagement that may not exist at all times, as by definition radio is often a background medium which - as I discussed last month - is a strength not a weakness.

It could be argued that the diary methodology used for currency may have some element of filtration already, as respondents may be more likely to fill in what they actively remember listening to. This may not necessarily be a bad thing as it may balance out the granularity of the survey being at a 15 minute level.

Arguably 'readership' is the metric that has the most straightforward link between metric and methodology. Reading is by nature not a 'background' activity: the eyes have to engage with the paper or screen to turn words into meaning.

The challenge for readership as a metric is when the measurement moves to a hybrid with online - for example NRS PADD, where newspaper 'readership' is combined with online traffic data using different metrics to reveal a truer picture.

Metrics are the least of our worries when it comes to online research. It was all supposed to be so simple: online would be a fully accountable, passively measured medium. Instead what we have so far is a world of online bots, click fraud and a debate over 'viewability' of advertising, all measured by competing panels that typically have response rates of a fraction of a percentage.

The problems here are more fundamental than metrics, as the ad industry is starting to realise, with the 'viewability' debate being perhaps the tipping point.

We claim to seek 'consumer understanding', but for me the first step in understanding consumers is not to call us consumers in the first place."

Nonetheless the metrics for media usage remain valid, provided we continue to understand and have an open debate about their meaning. However, there are two words, very commonly used in media research and more widely, that should be banned immediately, or at the very least should require £5 for the swearbox every time they are used.

Firstly, why in 2014 do we still insist on using the word 'digital'? Certainly the companies that are shaping our future - Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter - rarely, if ever, use it nowadays. It is so much a 'given' that the word was barely evident at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

Digital isn't something that is imminent, that is on the way and to be excitedly anticipated, it arrived over a decade ago, folks. It's actually a retro word now - we've been using it since the Human League was topping the charts. So why in media research and advertising do we still insist on slapping it on the front of every initiative or job title to make it seem modern?

I suspect that this fixation on the word actually has the reverse effect on clients as it makes the agencies seem like ageing Dads attempting to groove on down at their kid's disco. TV in this country is 100% digital now, so either it comes within the remit of a 'Head of Digital' or the word is exposed as being completely meaningless.

Some companies still insist on tracking how much of their business is 'digital', so they can trumpet it to the stock market without even really defining what the word means. So 'digital' - on your bike: you helped us get from 'A' to 'B' but your job is done.

However, my dislike of 'digital' is as nothing compared to my disdain for the word 'consumer'. It's a horrible term that we throw about as we worship, revere and seek to 'engage with' the consumer, without really pausing to think what the term actually means. It is an offensive, patronising word that implies a populace made of sheep, sleepily grazing in a field chewing lazily on a crop of FMCG products, defined only by a need to consume.

Brands talk about wanting to 'build a relationship' with consumers. In reality that relationship is all about building a massive database and sending us information about products, as opposed to really 'building a relationship' in the sense of providing good customer service, as that costs real money.

Try getting hold of someone at your mobile phone provider when something actually goes wrong and what you get is not a 'relationship' but deafening silence, as anyone with any responsibility to do anything about it runs as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

To a certain degree that is our fault as the spectacularly low prices we pay for the latest food and tech is made possible by companies cutting customer service to the bone in an era of inbuilt obsolescence (although perhaps the recent relative fortunes of John Lewis and Tesco reflect that all is not lost on this front).

I do share the cynicism of observers like Bob Hoffman (the Ad Contrarian) and Martin Weigel about how much the general public really want to 'engage' with brands, but if brands genuinely do want to 'build a relationship' with us, then I would ban the word consumer for a start. It has a passive, one-way connotation.

We claim to seek 'consumer understanding', but for me the first step in understanding consumers is not to call us consumers in the first place. We are living, breathing human beings with many other aspirations than the imperative to consume.

I appreciate that this call to action to ban digital consumers will have as much impact on the media 'village' as my campaign in these pages over a year ago to ban the term 'Big Data', but for the record: 'I am not a digital consumer, I am a free man'.

And that really is a reference for the over 50s!


Richard Marks is the director of Research the Media. Find out more here.

Twitter: @RichardMlive

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