Media, fast and slow

13 Jan 2014  |  David Brennan 
Media, fast and slow

The father of behavioural economics, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, has inadvertently indicated what is potentially the most critical contextual factor for the power of media channels - but what does it mean, and how can we make it work? David Brennan investigates the fast/slow media paradigm...

After a couple of weeks of total self-indulgence, slobbing out in front of the TV set and immersing myself in my (tablet-delivered) daily newspaper, I have also found time to reflect on the different context of media experiences, depending on the time we have available to enjoy them.

If behavioural economics has taught us one thing, it is the power of context to frame and influence much of how we feel and what we subsequently do. As Professor Nick Chater of UCL, one of the IPA's BE consultants, recently said:

"[...] for humans, everything is relative, there are no absolute measures [...] our judgement becomes swamped by context."

Many of the new market research techniques have indicated the strength of that contextual influence in the different ways media platforms effectively communicate with their audiences or consumers. As media researchers, we have always known these contextual factors were important; it was just that the blunt-edged research tools of yesteryear were never able to fully represent them.

So, it is only fitting that the father of behavioural economics, Nobel award-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, has inadvertently indicated what is potentially the most critical contextual factor of all for the power of media channels in his recent best-seller, 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'.

In his book, Kahneman shows how the 2-stage mind - Stage 1 being fast, intuitive, implicit, emotional, and heuristic-led; Stage 2 being analytical, slow, conscious, rational and evidence-led - enables humans to manage the increasing complexity of modern life.

We think fast when we need to, which may be much of the time, applying quick, intuitive decision-making processes, often without really 'thinking' very much at all. We think slow when we are motivated, or when we believe it is worth the effort.

Although [slow media] tended to focus on journalism and print media to begin with, it actually points to a more fundamental paradigm across all media channels"

More recently, we have seen this 'fast and slow' paradigm applied to media experiences. At a time when humans are multi-tasking and cramming multiple media experiences into their busy lives, the need for 'slow media' experiences has been recognised; indeed, there is a whole movement dedicated to it, with a manifesto and everything!

Every trend has a counter-trend, and so it has been with the speeding up of everyday life, much of it a direct result of the digital revolution. "Faster, better, more efficient" may be the dominant theme of our times, but not everybody feels it is necessarily desirable - or even better.

Taking its cue from the 1986 protests against the opening of a McDonalds in one of Rome's most famous squares, the Slow Movement started with food and quickly spread to a range of other subcultures, including urban planning, travel and design. The 'Slow Media Movement' was founded in 2010 by a group of German academics and entrepreneurs as a counterpoint to the hectic, always-on, distracting media environment which has grown up around the digital revolution. As the manifesto states:

"Like 'Slow Food', Slow Media are not about fast consumption but about choosing the ingredients mindfully and preparing them in a concentrated manner. Slow Media are welcoming and hospitable. They like to share."

The characteristics of 'slow media' include:

- Promotion of mono-tasking - slow media requires concentration and immersion from its audience
- Aim for perfection - slow media are not about the latest developments but are much more interested in evolution and continuous improvement
- Make quality palpable - invest in design, content and quality to stand out from their fast-paced and short-lived counterparts
- Encourage 'prosumerism' - prosumers being people who actively define how they want to consume and produce
- Promote social media - by creating communities or tribes around the content
- Timelessness
- Growth via recommendation rather than promotion or advertising
- Sense of the human involvement - as the manifesto states: "Behind slow media are real people, and you can feel that."

Although the movement tended to focus on journalism and print media to begin with, it actually points to a more fundamental paradigm across all media channels. The slow media definition could be applied to reading the newspaper from cover to cover, being absorbed in your favourite magazine, binge-viewing a whole television series on Netflix or catch-up TV, or listening to Test Match Special on the radio (although, after the Ashes debacle, that latter option felt more like death by a thousand cuts than it did an absorbing media experience!).

By contrast, fast media experiences could include social media updates, grabbing a glimpse at last night's reality show via on-demand during the lunch break, browsing the news headlines, most outdoor (I would imagine) or attempting to find that 'must-listen' music track on Spotify.

Of course, this means that some (most?) media channels can be both fast and slow media. Newspapers can provide a quick scan of the headlines, or catch-up on the football results, but they can also provide a leisurely morning read at the weekends or on the way to work. Television can be a lie back or lean forward medium, often during the same viewing session. Online, despite often being about 'Now! Now! Now!' experience, can also offer some satisfying slow media experiences of its own.

So, what does this all mean? I think there are four key issues that arise from this slow/fast media paradigm:

Media brands that can perform against a variety of needs will be best placed to maintain the loyalty of their users"

Is it an age thing? Do we go from fast to slow?

Many years ago, I had a very enjoyable New York lunch with the head of a US cable company, who regaled me with his theory about sports. His view was that there were lateral and linear sports.

The former were typified by sudden bouts of on-field action that had a fluid and unpredictable aspect to them. Examples would be rugby, American football, ice hockey or 'soccer'. Linear sports, such as baseball, tennis or cricket, were more formalised and slow-moving in terms of the flow of action and progression towards the final outcome.

His point was that lateral sports were hugely popular amongst younger viewers but linear sports were something that older viewers tended to 'grow into'. I wonder if there is a metaphor there for fast and slow media experiences.

Age certainly influences which media we use, and how we use them, and the data appears to support the premise that younger media consumers prefer 'fast media' experiences, whereas oldies like myself prefer to immerse ourselves in 'slow media' as often as time permits.

I suspect this - more than availability or propensity towards technology - is the main reason why the young embrace digital media. That said, I'm not sure if it is as simple as that; I know lots of teenagers who also love nothing more than to lie down for hours on end in front of a TV set or even immersed in a good book (I know!). Similarly, all the older people I know have plenty of in-between media encounters as their busy lives dictate a lack of time available for the full slow media experience.

Each media platform can be fast or slow

We shouldn't see this fast/slow media paradigm as device or channel-specific. As I mentioned above, watching TV, reading newspapers/magazines or engaging with social media can be either fast or slow, depending on the context, needs states and time available to the media consumer.

In fact, it might be argued that the ability of each media channel or platform to cater for these different needs states and contexts will be key to their future success. As media consumers become overwhelmed by the choices available to them, all the signs are that those favoured media brands that can perform against a variety of needs will be best placed to maintain the loyalty of their users.

Advertising will work differently across fast and slow media

I think the key point here is that slow media experiences are about immersion whereas fast media experiences are more about attention. As regular readers of my blog will know, I have written at length about the differences between engagement and attention, and this fast/slow paradigm seems to me to be the most important driver of which will be the predominant advertising influence.

When we are engaged in slow media experiences, it is less likely that we are prepared to move on or allow ourselves to be too distracted from the content in which we are immersed (one of the problems, I feel, with the early red button experience on TV), whereas in a fast media environment we are more prepared to be distracted or take things in quickly. As such, we should think of slow media as engagement and brand-building opportunities, whereas fast media offers more activation or 'nudge' possibilities.

How should we measure and evaluate these different experiences?

This is the main issue; although the media world is in constant search for the universal measurement - as seen by the inconclusive attempts to define and measure 'engagement' - we should rather be measuring and evaluating media investments depending on where on the fast/slow spectrum they sit.

For slow media, key metrics may include dwell time, loyalty, branding effects and long-term attitudes and perceptions. For fast media, it may be much more relevant to measure clicks, exposure, interactions, sharing or more direct attention measures.

Of course, as with most things, the secret is to harness both types of experience, using a wide range of media channels in order to optimise both the brand building and activation impact of a campaign. However, until we recognise that fast and slow media work in very different ways, we are unlikely to make the most of the opportunities the fast and slow media environments can offer.

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