Through the looking glass

New media allows brands to engage directly with consumers, but the same technology can offer market researchers a unique opportunity to find out what customers really think. By Alicia Clegg

Which media would you use to promote a new car aimed, primarily, at 50-something females? Women’s magazines, prime-time television, the Web, maybe? Or perhaps, like Peugeot, you might plump for something experimental.

The car manufacturer’s decision to give pride of place to online media and mobile texting in the campaign that launched the Peugeot 1007 last summer highlights how rapidly patterns of media consumption are changing. For brands, this creates opportunities for communicating in novel and, hopefully, more effective ways â as well as adding to the options that marketers have when preparing a campaign.

Changes in media

Change and uncertainty in the media create opportunities for market research agencies to prove their worth to clients. The first requirement is for hard quantitative data pinpointing who is using what. “The gap between the way in which technologies are adopted and used by young and older age groups is reducing all the time,” says Dick Stroud, managing director of 20plus30, a marketing strategy consultancy specialising in the over-50s age group.

He adds that the biggest influence on the use of new technology is not a person’s age but their level of education. “An 80-year-old with a university degree is more likely to be a heavy user of the internet than someone in their 50s with little formal education,” he says.

Stroud’s contention that brands are held back by stereotypical ideas about which groups of society use which type of technology is supported by a recent study of the lifestyles of mature consumers, conducted by OMD Insight. This research found that 60% of over 50s with mobile phones regularly send text messages. At the same time, the study highlighted huge differences within the over-50s group, ranging on the one hand from consumers who felt alienated by the modern world through to “live wires”; brand-conscious over-50s who were among the most enthusiastic adopters of new technologies, such as texting, iPods and SkyPlus.

Detailed information about who uses new media is only the starting point for developing effective marketing strategies. Equally important is discovering how people use technology in their lives and the ways brands can tap into this, without invading the consumer’s personal space and privacy. The executive president of Millward Brown’s global media practice Brian Jacobs says/ “A teenager who receives an unsolicited text message that’s entirely irrelevant to her interests will react just as strongly as an older consumer – it’s just rude.”

One way to find out what people want is to ask them, hence the growth of permission-based marketing, where consumers give their consent to receive messages or make the first move by texting or e-mailing a business in response to an advertisement or competition. Another possibility is to look for opportunities to blend brands into the everyday landscape of the virtual world, just as advertising carried on posters, taxis and bus-shelters merges naturally into the physical world.

Continental Research director David Evans cites the case of Massive Incorporated, a video game network that places advertising for brands in games. “Gamers might be driving along a virtual motor-way and they’ll see advertising for a new film displayed by the side of the road or on a plasma screen at a football stadium just as in real life,” he says. The role of research, in this context, is to quantify how much exposure the game will give to the brand and help brand owners work out how closely their target market matches the profile of the gaming population.

Build stronger brands

New media technologies offer more than an opportunity to serve up conventional advertising to consumers through new channels. Used imaginatively, online channels can build stronger brands by allying businesses with online communities serving lifestyle and niche interests – sports and soap operas, gay and minority subcultures – that fit with their products.

The real opportunity, says Ben Hart, co-founder of design and interactive agency Glass, is for brands to make the leap from marketing to online communities, to offering them tangible support as sponsors and collaborators.

Online communities are also opening up opportunities for market research, both as an easy- to-reach source of participants and as a space in which to gather â¢feedback. “The big benefit of the Web is that it allows you to play around with video clips, which can be hugely beneficial for testing advertising. With the development of voice over the internet technologies, there’s also the opportunity to add in live discussion,” says Sally Emslie, associate partner at HPI Research. Hart is also an enthusiast, viewing online communities as a ready-made resource which has “done the work of a brand trying to recruit for research purposes”.

But how should businesses tap into this resource? One approach is for companies to place surveys on sites which overlap with their target market. However, if a brand is fortunate enough to have inspired an online community of enthusiasts, the last thing it should do is show up on the site, says integrated agency Draft London’s joint head of strategic planning Brian Dargan. “Most blogs and online communities are ‘punk’ in their ethos, self-organised and driven by the enthusiasm and passion of their members. If the brand were to start floating ideas in such a forum, it would only detract from the site’s credibility,” he says.

Monitor blogs

Simply listening to what people are saying can be educational. Market researchers ought to monitor blogs and networks that overlap with their interests. But what if brands could harness the energy of brand enthusiasts into developing new products? Lee Eyre is convinced this is possible. To prove it he has co-founded Netfluential, a company that scours the Web and offers enthusiasts an online portal to engage with Netfluential’s commercial clients. He says/ “In the past, marketing has been all about pushing stuff at people, the idea behind Netfluential is to give consumers more of say in shaping new products by encouraging free and honest exchange.”

Whether “the free and honest exchange” engaged in by Netfluential’s opinion leaders can be harnessed by designers to develop products has yet to be demonstrated. But the idea of using the interactivity of the internet to humanise faceless corporations and create a sense of community among consumers is catching on. Technology companies have led the trend with the creation of developers’ networks and blogs written by employees that update the public on product developments and invite comments in response.

Now consumer marketers are starting to experiment with the possibilities of online exchange. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” has at its centre an interactive community that encourages women to debate concepts of “beauty”. Lush, the handmade cosmetics company, runs an online forum which hosts discussions between customers on topics from relationships to Lush products.

Alan Moore, co-founder of engagement marketing specialist SMLXL, says/ “What we are beginning to see is marketers very painfully taking their first baby steps towards engaging with consumers and understanding that nobody is as clever as everybody.” So should market research agencies, traditionally the intermediaries between brands and the public, welcome or fear the growing willingness of businesses to engage directly with consumers?

Opinion Leader Research director Graeme Trayner sees the trend as an opportunity; but only if market researchers can unlearn some old habits. In a paper which he will present at next week’s Market Research Society Conference, he argues that while smart organisations are “giving up control” and “benefiting from people’s creativity”, the research industry remains wedded to “outmoded notions of command and control”, treating people as “passive respondents” instead of “partners in creativity”.

Contribute ideas

To remain relevant, argues Trayner, qualitative researchers should encourage people to contribute their own ideas and thinking, rather than simply responding to concepts developed by professionals. But, he adds, while changing with the times, market researchers need to keep hold of their core skills, in particular, their ability to pull in ordinary members of the public who are neither detractors of the brand nor committed enthusiasts.

Browsing the often gushing comments made by enthusiasts in forums run by popular brands serves to reinforce the importance of this caveat. As Trayner puts it: “The downside of current initiatives is that they only attract people with an existing level of interest and engagement.” Having started out as a movement to involve consumers with brands, it would be ironic, indeed, if the trend towards open and honest exchange ended up with brands talking exclusively to their friends.

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