A refreshing consumer survey trumped by interactive jokers

Touchpoints’ consumer-centric approach to media research makes a useful change, but data sampling is losing relevance in the digital era.

Tucked in to the end of the year comes the IPA’s announcement that it is going ahead with “Touchpoints Two” in 2007. That’s no great surprise. Everyone knew the first version was a success. But it does confirm and accelerate an important trend.

Touchpoints is the first serious attempt at consumer-centric rather than media-centric measurement of consumers’ media consumption. All the measures which we currently know and love – BARB, NRS, RAJAR etc. – are 100% media centric/ they only measure audiences. They don’t tell us anything about which mixes of different media different consumer groups pay attention to.

In a multimedia world of multimedia marketing campaigns, this is breathtakingly absurd. Touchpoints begins to dent this absurdity by taking a holistic view on different consumer groups’ consumption of different mixes and weights of different media.

The data has many uses. The simplest and most valuable contribution is to provide marketers with much greater insight into how different consumer groups allocate media consumption time. How much time do 16- to 24-year-olds devote to the internet, TV and press as compared to ABC1 35- to 45-year-old women, or the over-65s?

Interesting insights
Within this there’s a wealth of fascinating detail. There’s a goldmine of information about when people use different media (how about the internet as a channel for reaching office workers during the day?). There’s also intriguing data about multi-tasking. In sum: useful, practical grist for the marketing mill.

There’s another dimension of benefit too: a psychological one. Over time, as the consumer-centric Touchpoints philosophy sinks in, marketers and media planners will focus increasingly on the people they are addressing rather than thinking primarily in terms of media. That can’t be bad. Also, media owners will increasingly be forced to sell their media “in the context of” other media rather than “in competition with” other media.

Of course, Touchpoints is not perfect. One glitch is the lack of universally accepted “currencies” for newer media channels such as the internet, SMS and direct mail. That’s not the IPA’s fault. But it does create a problem. Touchpoints has to simulate a currency for these media.

There’s the size of Touchpoints’ panel: 5,000. This means that once you start drilling down to the granular specifics needed by actual brands – say, magazine and internet usage for males aged 35 to 54 with an interest in cars – the samples get so small as to be, well, dodgy.

Then there’s the decay factor. Given the current pace of change in media consumption, the “half-life” of Touchpoint data is short. A second round really was a must: it’s good news that it’s going ahead.

But is a second round really enough? Given the progress represented by Touchpoints, it may seem churlish to suggest that it’s too little, too late. But here goes.

Touchpoints is designed for the media landscape of ten years ago. Not today’s. And certainly not tomorrow’s. There are at least four jokers in the pack.

The first joker is the accelerating availability of actual behaviour data. The fact is, a digital media world is also a personalised media world. Creating a workable system for Google/BSkyB to serve up ads on the basis of each viewer’s viewing histories won’t be easy, so don’t hold your breath. But make no mistake. With the Google/BSkyB deal, another TV advertising earthquake is about to happen.

No need for statistics
This trend towards actual rather than sample data is not confined to TV. As it unfolds, the value of all sample-based research, including Touchpoints, will decline. Why bother with a statistical average when you know who you are talking to and what they are interested in?The second joker is the growing momentum of permission marketing, including “Permission Mark II” – volunteered data. It’s becoming possible for consumers to specify exactly what they are interested in, when they want information about it, and how they want it. The more consumers say “here I am, this is what I’m interested in, please talk to me now”, the less traditional push campaigns make sense.

Although permission and Permission Mark II are not going to transform every sector, they transform will some, including cars, financial services, travel, electrical and white goods. With its focus on “audiences” rather than data exchange, Touchpoints misses this emerging communication logic.

The third joker is a reflection of our industry’s bizarre inability to “get” the internet: the apparently irresistible urge to view the new through the eyes of the old and see the internet as just another media channel.

There’s a positive or negative spin on this depending on your vested interested, but either way it misses a crucial point. The internet is not a media channel. It is a mechanism for doing many different things: search for information, shop, be entertained, communicate, and so on.

We wouldn’t dream of interrupting a West End theatre show to display an advertisement. So we don’t bother measuring the time spent by “audiences” at shows like this. So why do we assume that the time spent by users on the internet and the total number of people using the internet for different purposes is any real indicator of the scale or scope of advertising opportunities?This raises two issues, one immediately practical, the other strategically crucial. The first is how to measure internet audiences for advertising purposes. It’s often assumed that if people are spending 25% of their “media consumption” time on the internet, then the internet should get 25% of media budgets. But if you accept that people are using the internet to do many different things, this assumption becomes a nonsense.

Enter the strategically crucial issue of consumer purpose. Our current “audience” model of advertising is obsessed with eyeball time because it assumes that eyeballs are a transmission mechanism to the brain, where brand messages can be lodged. This model focuses 100% on the purposes of the advertiser – message lodging – and 0% on the purposes of the eyeball.

See what you want to see
The internet is a tool in the hands of the user. The reason why people like it is that it gives their eyeballs the opportunity to pursue their own purposes. Which creates a problem. If you introduce consumer purpose into “audience measurement” you render the measure meaningless: it is consumer purpose that defines the value of the ad. If, right now, I’m really interested in buying a washing machine and you talk to me about washing machines, then my “audience value” is worth ten, a 100, perhaps 1,000 times more than say, if you talk to me about life insurance.

An audience paradigm which thinks in terms of averaged numbers of eyeballs, impression numbers and frequencies, simply cannot cope with the addition of this new ingredient. It’s also why any currency that measures just eyeballs and time, without taking account of purpose is tending to uselessness.

Touchpoints is built around the assumption that if you integrate many useless measures you will get a useful one. But that’s doubtful.

Enter joker number four. When push comes to shove, marketers are not interested in audiences or audience measures. They are interested in people who buy, or might buy, their brands, and the two are not the same.

What entertainment or news people consume, or how much time they spend consuming which media, is just a proxy to the real issue – how customers go to market, how they acquire the information they use to make purchasing decisions, and how to fit the brand into this process so that its communication is welcomed and paid attention to. This is not the same as understanding media consumption. Yet Touchpoints is still focused on media consumption.

Does this mean the IPA shouldn’t bother with its second round? Of course not. Touchpoints is a significant step in the right direction – towards real consumer-centric thinking. It’s just that we’ve got a long, long way to go.

Alam Mitchell, www.alanmitchell.biz

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