Rethinking Audience Research

It seems that everything these days has to be interpreted as black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. There’s no room any more for good old grey. This is not healthy; extreme positions mean there’s little room for discussion or constructive debate.

It’s thus with some trepidation that I say that we should be rethinking industry audience research’s remit.

Having attracted the angry research brigade, let me continue.

I’m a huge fan of joint industry research. There’s no question that reaching a consensus around the best way to measure audiences is sensible and effective. It stops all those pointless arguments about whether the definition of a reader/viewer/visitor should be arrived at via this or the other technique.

We can thus all get on with our day jobs secure in the knowledge that currency research might not be the truth (it’s never claimed to be any such thing) but at least we’re all agreed that it’s the best estimate the best researchers in the business can come up with.

Audience measurement techniques were created to measure how many, and broadly what sort of people were doing something – watching TV, reading a newspaper and so on. They’re focussed on counting heads, and defining those heads.

But today that’s nowhere near sufficient. Today it’s dawning on us that the way that people are exposed to messages, the context within which the message sits, how the audience is feeling when exposed to the message, how the message resonates, all of these and no doubt other criteria are important. Plus, of course what happens as a result of the exposure.

Today we have the first bit – the headcounting bit – and the last bit – the did-it-work bit – pretty well covered.

But we’re not so good at all those context bits in the middle. And they matter as if you get them right then the odds are that you’ll deliver success more consistently and for less outlay.

That’s why we need to rethink what goes into industry audience measurement. We should accept we’re great at estimating how many, and keep going on that front as no doubt there are improvements still to make, including doing all we can to bring the likes of FB and Google into the fold.

But at the same time the industry should consider setting its best researchers to tackle the softer contextual questions. Is live TV a different thing from binge viewing? And if so how? Do people watch video on Facebook or YouTube differently from how they watch the self-same thing on a TV set? And does it matter?

How best to combine different data-sets, and what process should be employed to make sure we capture learnings to improve audience measures further?

Some of these questions are it is true being addressed by the relevant media owners themselves, in the same way that valuable insights have been generated by publishers and broadcasters for years, but isn’t it time for the industry as a whole to consider them as an integral part of our foundation systems?

The JIC system has worked very well for many years. It will continue to play an invaluable role but maybe it’s time to extend its remit for the benefit of us all.

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