Tuesday, June 26, 2007

On the Record: They Aren't Just Like Us

On the Record: They Aren't Just Like Us
by Mike Bloxham

The very fact you are reading this article and this magazine is evidence that you are - in the nicest possible way - a freak of nature. That is not to impugn either you or the goodly publishers of Media magazine or my fellow contributors (all of whom are worthy, wonderful and intelligent people).

Rather, it is a fact based on the sheer amount of time we spend contemplating and working in the world of media in all its forms (and for those of you bridling at the very notion of being a freak for reading this, console yourselves with the contemplation of what that makes me, the author of this piece). In short, this single-mindedness makes us so unlike the people we dedicate ourselves to reaching, moving, engaging, motivating, persuading and influencing that we are - in comparison - decidedly abnormal (freakish).

Consider for example, your average work day (probably at least eight hours and generally more). For all of that time you will be rigorously focused on planning, executing and evaluating campaigns. You'll be buying or selling media. You'll be pitching new business or being on the receiving end of pitches. The list goes on, and all the while you will be dipping in and out of the stream of online articles dropping into your inbox to inform your ever-evolving perspective of the fast-moving media landscape and all that takes place within it.

Your Media Day is very much made up of the business of media itself (as well as whatever content you consume via your channels of choice). For your consumers, however, the Media Day almost certainly involves a great deal of media, but they are all about content, not the business end of things. They care more about last night's ball game, the reality show of choice and the day's morning news. They also care about their kids' education, their prospects at work, their retirement and what the family holiday will be this year.

In short, they don't really care about media itself - just what it does for them. We, on the other hand, care a lot. And that's how it should be. It's the willingness to focus so much effort and time on the business of media that makes you good at what you do. The catch, though, is that it also helps to create a divide between practitioners and consumers that can be almost impossible to bridge.

Too often one hears statements from the media community that suggest an implicit belief that consumers are "just like us" - as well-informed and equally motivated to engage with media as those of us that are paid to. How many times have you heard that "everyone" is using a Blackberry incessantly, watching videos on their iPods, blogging, spending half their lives in virtual worlds, etc? If these kind of statements had been true, then the on-demand world would already be all-encompassing, every household would have a DVR, TV would be interactive from top to bottom and most retail outlets would have become a thing of the past.

Those with a vested interest in these things happening want to find evidence for them doing so. But we have to avoid the mass delusion of the dot-com bubble. As so many more platforms and capabilities emerge and reach a potential audience, we must strive to avoid falling into the trap of believing that the simple fact of availability will lead to inevitable and habitual large-scale use.

A case in point is the video-capable iPod. In a story in this magazine a few months ago, various commentators expressed surprise that a piece of Nielsen research found only 2 percent of a sample of 400 iPod users watched video on their device. Doubt was cast on the methodology, partly because the number of video downloads from iTunes would logically indicate iPod-based viewing. But consumers are inconvenient in their habits and as research will show, many of the movies downloaded from iTunes never make it off the pc or Mac, where they are viewed without the need for a further file transfer. To many users, this is a convenient route to what they want (the movie), while the iPod still performs perfectly well as an audio device.

Though there's unprecedented change happening in the media world now, it's not all happening at the same rate. While new devices and capabilities seem to come through almost every week and companies rush to commercialize, consumers don't always follow at the desired pace. Sometimes they even adopt unexpected patterns of use that leave companies playing catch-up. It's our ability to empathize with consumers that will enable us to turn expertise to practical advantage rather than be bogged down by our own perceptions.

Mike Bloxham is director of insight and research at the Center for Media Design, Ball State University. (mbloxham@bsu.edu)

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