Insights have become a vehicle for influencing marketing and ultimately, the world. That’s why next in our Insights as a Vehicle for Influence interview series, we sat down with Sam Ford, a media executive, consultant, and research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing. In our conversation, he shed some light on how the media industry has changed and how media companies can do a better job at reaching the “new age” consumer.
What is the state of the media research industry in 2017?
Media research is in an interesting state at the moment. On the one hand, there’s more to potentially research than ever before. Quantitatively, there’s more to research than ever before, and organizations are finding new ways to collect, synthesize, and make sense of all the data they are bringing in.
However, with that influx of data, there still remains a certain surety in what it’s saying, without necessarily enough questioning of whether we’re asking the right questions. I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time in the media industries gathering the data that is easiest to gather, or that feels the most similar to what we’ve always gathered, leading organizations to continue to be driven by impressions-and-reach-based models, when they may often not be serving the needs of media companies, advertisers, or audiences all that well.
Meanwhile, there are more opportunities than ever to do great qualitative research, from audience experience projects to netnography, but organizations often have not prioritized/invested in these methods. Many organizations are making deeper investments into digital research, but all too often the teams aren’t connected in the ways they should be to maximize effectiveness and minimize redundancy. And, most importantly of all, the sort of pattern recognition most important for good insights work may not be positioned in many media companies in a way that allows it to contribute all it can. After all, gathering data, qualitative insights, benchmarking, and thoughts about future trends are all only useful if there are ways all of this is being synthesized, analyzed, and brought to the table for key decisions being made across the organization.
What have been the biggest changes in the industry since you started your career?
I’ve spent years on different sides of these questions. I began my career as a journalist. For the past 12 years, I’ve tackled these questions most consistently from an academic’s perspective, looking at these questions from outside the day-to-day needs of a particular media organization. I have spent many years consulting with big brands from a marketing and PR standpoint. And I spent much of the past two years working at a media company operating in the network television, cable television, digital publishing, and digital video distribution spaces.
Across all those vantage points, I’ve seen an industry weathering a prolonged period of massive change, largely by finding ways to hold as closely as it can to an ongoing semblance of normalcy—which is to be expected in an industry where businesses can never truly close up shop. We’ve seen an acceptance that you can’t fight change throughout the media industries, but it has come along with a desire to cling to the broadcast model.
Have the influx of social media and mobile made your job easier or harder?
Media companies, and advertisers, used to have very few methods to really understand and listen to their audiences. We have all sorts of new methods to be able to do that now. So, rather than having to create aggregate stand-ins like customer segmentation profiles for our audience, we have more access to those real people than ever before.
However, with that overabundance of information, we’ve strangely found ourselves in a similar position as when we didn’t have enough information—relying too often on ways of understanding audiences that may not be the most insightful. In this case, it’s what’s easiest to collect or feel concrete about, in a world where the overabundance of potential information gives us the feeling of chaos.
How has the media consumer changed in the past few years?
I don’t suppose people have changed all that much, in the sense that the way audiences are using technology often mirrors things people have always wanted to do but couldn’t necessarily do so as easily, or—if they did—happened in ways that media companies or advertisers couldn’t easily detect. People want to keep media content. People want to share media content. People want to talk back to media content. People like to have as much control as they can over their choices. Now that those options are becoming easier, viewers have to think even more deeply about how they want to engage with different types of programming.
If I can watch a series at my own pace, what do I want that pace to be? Do I watch different types of programming at different types of paces? When do I want to engage more deeply with media content, versus when do I want to engage more passively? As media organizations put more effort into engaging active audiences, it leaves those audiences to think about when, where, and how they want to participate.
How can media companies do a better job reaching the new age consumer?
I think we are only scratching the surface of what we can do to really resonate with audiences. Most importantly, I believe, is finding as many ways as possible to put ourselves in the shoes of the audience members who are coming to us on purpose. As we get away from reach metrics as the cornerstone of our business models, it allows us to think about how we as an industry build around the sort of CRM models that drive subscription-based businesses…that lead to fostering an active audience base engaging with you on purpose, and with purpose.
No matter what type of media company you are, it seems that this is the most important, stable, and lucrative part of the audience, but the one that business models have all too often driven companies to neglect and take for granted. When we are imagining each month’s digital traffic goals or viewership goals as tabula rasa, then everything becomes focused on driving as much general-audience interest as possible in what we do.
And for those organizations that do, for instance, serialized programming or subscription models, there’s still a lot of work to be done to really understand and think about everything the media company does from the shoes of that active audience. How do they want to engage with the content? What else do they want from the media brand? Why do they become proselytizers? How do you identify audiences already engaged in similar content but who haven’t yet found their way to you? In such a cluttered media landscape as we have today, we can’t take for granted that people will quickly find us.
What is the biggest challenge in the media industry today?
We have machines built around pushing what’s on/coming out now, not for maintaining the longevity of content that has the potential for a long shelf-life. In an era where a good portion of media content is available for on-demand engagement later, we have to think about how we support machines that are much better at monetizing media products over time, thinking about investments in content for which the ROI may come slowly but which may continue on for years, if supported in the right way.
We see glimpses of this in how subscription services think about investment in original content production…and I recommend everyone read Amanda Lotz’s new treatise Portals as a way to dig more deeply into these questions. But media businesses, and the research teams that support them, have to think about how to recalibrate the machines we’ve built over the last few decades to these new types of questions.
Where do you see media research moving in 5 years?
I hope to see media researchers continue to make great strides in helping organizations create meaningful media texts which demonstrate an understanding of what audiences want and how audiences want to engage them. I hope to see research and insights work, as a function, taken increasingly serious by corporate decision-makers who need the expertise that the best of the research & insights field have to offer.
In an era where so much remains up in the air about the media industries, and where trust in media companies has been a topic of common popular discussion, it’s up to media researchers to think about the role they can play as catalysts for a discussion about how we build models that serve content producers, media companies, advertisers, and audiences better than what we have right now. If we don’t take advantage of the current liminal moment for the television industry (See M.J. Robinson’s work on this in the forthcoming book, Television on Demand), then I don’t know what will make us seriously tackle these questions until models start falling apart.
Sam Ford is a media executive, consultant, and research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing. He also teaches in the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University. In 2015-2016, he founded and ran the Univision/Fusion Media Group Center for Innovation and Engagement, as VP, Innovation & Engagement, for Fusion. He is also co-author of the 2013 book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. More on his work here.