By Mark Dominiak
Special to TelevisionWeek
There’s little doubt that engagement is the year’s hottest topic in media planning. Yet for all of the discussion, I would argue the media community is still not addressing the subject holistically.
There are generally two points of view on a subject: the view from outside in and, conversely, the view from the inside out. When considering the subject of media planning, that translates to the marketer’s process of planning media versus the consumer’s relationship with media.
New Way to Measure
The lion’s share of conversation thus far has focused on engagement as a metric. That’s an important observation. A metric is a measurement. In engagement’s case, it’s a new way of measuring how effectively a form of media grabs consumers’ attention. It’s another case of us as media people and marketers looking from the outside at consumer behavior and trying to come up with a better way of quantifying it.
There’s been little discussion of engagement from the other perspective. In short, what does engagement mean from the consumer’s point of view? From that viewpoint, engagement has nothing to do with measuring. It has everything to do with relationships; namely, the relationship consumers have to a particular media property or environment.
As planners, we should make an extra effort to attack both sides of the opportunity engagement provides. We need to have the quantitative discipline necessary to make engagement a useful tool, but we also need to have qualitative skill to apply engagement to brand situations in the marketplace. That means understanding what motivates consumer behavior from the consumer’s perspective. Understanding those motivations will help in creating media plans that better facilitate engagement of consumers.
Ensure a Connection
Here’s a plea to get more holistic with the engagement discussion. While attacking the important issue of how to appropriately measure engagement, let’s not forget we also need to devote effort toward facilitating engagement.
Facilitating engagement is not just the province of the creative team. It also must be a required deliverable of media plans. Planners must do the best job they possibly can to ensure that the creative message connects with target consumers in environments conducive to engagement.
The next logical question asks, “What environments are most conducive to engagement?” Here’s one best practice to use as a starting point: When attacking the planning exercise, consider two wells that can facilitate engagement: shared experiences and individual experiences. In both areas, consumers draw environmental energy from their media experiences, which helps facilitate a deeper level of engagement.
Media experiences shared as they occur, or communally after the fact, have the opportunity to facilitate engagement for a number of reasons.
In situations when a media experience occurs among a number of people, dynamics come into play that aren’t present during solitary experiences. First, individuals can be influenced by the reactions of others present. A group “oooh” or “aaah” has a more potent emotional value than one experienced alone.
Also, a group setting brings with it a kind of immediate water-cooler environment. People begin discussing thoughts or feelings immediately because there are others directly at hand who just experienced the same thing. In situations where masses of people were tapped into a media experience individually but come together shortly thereafter, the water-cooler factor comes into play again. People are eager for the opportunity to express their perspective to others.
These kinds of media environments have great value for consumer engagement, but unfortunately, there aren’t as many available as there used to be. Have we reached a point where the only times masses of Americans are tuned in to the same programming have dwindled to the Super Bowl, big award shows and disasters?
It seems maybe we have. Outside of event programming, there aren’t many offerings out there that consistently stimulate engagement. “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Survivor,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “American Idol” will all generate energy, water-cooler conversation and consumer interaction. But the number of engaged consumers tapping into these shows is low by the standards of even five years ago.
Are there other areas of television that generate a shared experience environment that could be targeted as an opportunity for engagement? In preparing this article, I thought a good area to delve into would be local news.
We’re all familiar with downward prime-time share trends over the years. I had a supposition that if local news trends were compared with prime time, there wouldn’t be the same level of erosion. When other television offerings are over, wouldn’t individuals living in a shared community be eager to tune in to local news, perhaps sharing news together afterward? Whether it involves breaking news, tomorrow’s weather or rallying behind a local sports franchise, local news seems as though it would provide an excellent potential for shared experience media energy.
The numbers tell a different story. In looking at trends of cume prime-time household ratings going back to 1983 compared with trends of cume household ratings for the big three local newscasts at the local late news hour in the top 10 designated market areas, it’s evident local news has eroded at almost exactly the same rate as has prime time.
To be fair, local news broadcasts on Fox and WB affiliates in these markets could historically be factored in and add a small boost to local news numbers, but not enough to suggest local news is a strong opportunity for a shared experience type of environment.
So where does that leave us on the subject of shared experience environments as potential opportunities to facilitate engagement? Well, it leaves us right back where we started: without many opportunities. And it seems those that are left are becoming less powerful over time.
Even areas outside of television that could possibly generate the same kind of impact are experiencing erosion. The best example to cite is the motion picture industry. Though one or two films a year generate significant buzz and shared experiences, box office returns are not as robust as they once were.
Since data suggests that Americans are spending more time than ever with media, the implication is that what used to be shared-experience occasions have evolved into something else. That something else is a greater degree of individual media experiences.
While many would credit the rise in individual media experiences to dramatic increases in media options available to consumers, there is another, broader-scope phenomenon that may be the bigger driver: We are a less socially active society than we were in the past.
Americans in general are much less involved in political, civic and religious group activities than in their peak years leading into the ’60s. There has also been a marked decline in the bevy of activities that were the fabric of American life in prior decades. Such activities as weekly bridge clubs, bowling leagues and getting together at the corner diner used to energize social connection networks. Now they are rare occurrences.
For a broader perspective on this phenomenon, pick up a copy of “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam. Among his observations, Putnam posits that the friendly card game has been replaced by activities Web surfing, video games and casino gambling. These activities all happen to be “distinguished by their solitary nature.”
Partnered with an American marketing engine geared toward providing consumers with myriad choices, it’s no wonder leisure time and play habits have shifted to activities that are personal and solitary.
The challenge for media planners is profound. With a dramatically reduced list of shared media experience options available (and those that are have high premiums), individual experience environments must be used to prompt engagement. In those environments, there is no incremental energy to be drawn from a group to facilitate engagement, which makes establishing a connection with the individual that much more difficult.
The answer is not simply to shift more dollars into interactive media. Consumers still invest significant amounts of time with traditional media forms. What can planners do to make those forms more interactive and thereby engaging to consumers?
Digital television possibilities provide excellent opportunities. An icon appears on the screen and the consumer can use the remote to click for more information. How about learning from programming like “American Idol”? Give consumers choices and a phone number to call or a Web site to visit. Those actions demonstrate engagement.
“The West Wing” is doing a live episode. While it has the flavor of “Everything old is new again,” it’s a unique enough offering that viewer attentiveness-and therefore engagement-will likely be strong for the episode. We need to work with the creative team and our sales partners to create engaging placements like these for brand messages.
If we don’t invest effort in this part of the equation, we can expect to become more disconnected from end consumers, decreasing our chances for prompting engagement. Clients want results. That’s not just an accurate measure of accountability, it’s also facilitated engagement, which prompts brand sales.
Mark Dominiak is principal strategist of marketing, communication and context for Insight Garden.