Can epidemiology, the study of the spread of diseases, help the media business? A dozen strategic planning executives from the nation's leading technology, media and advertising companies certainly think so. Last year, these executives, assisted by the Advertising Research Foundation, formed a project called D-Map to build what they hope will be a breakthrough model for forecasting sales and growth of new media.
Although the group has yet to finalize this new model, it came up with the idea to base it on the principles of epidemiology in November, when team members such as Jon Swallen, senior vice president, media knowledge at Interpublic's Universal McCann and Russell Booth, director of developing technologies with Grey Advertising's MediaCom, gathered in Tarrytown, N.Y. for their first meeting. The idea: that growth of new media spreads through a population much the same way a disease would. So, projections about the expansion of new media should take into account the fact that any type of new media spreads through the population in waves â€” first to early adopters and then to the rest of the public.
The D-Map model is about one year away from being released to the industry, according to Russell Neuman, a professor of media technology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who is leading the team of academic researchers building the model. Although still in very preliminary stages of development, the model is based on the Bass Model, which was developed 40 years ago to plot the diffusion of infectious diseases.
With the model for D-Map selected, the team is deciding which variables are the most meaningful in determining how quickly new media spreads. These variables include assumptions about new technology in development, the regulatory landscape, consumer demand for a particular new media product, as well as the potential consumer penetration. Next, academics at the MIT Media Lab will develop the software to run the model. A beta version of the software should be completed by the time the group meets again this May, says Neuman. They will then test the new model, running the program to examine economic assumptions about various new media â€” everything from, say, the growth of personal video recorders to the impact of wireless Internet access on when, where and how people use media. A final meeting is scheduled for next winter, when the finished product will be unveiled to the industry, and, the group hopes, in time, accepted as an industry standard.
â€œWhat we expect to get out of this project is a tool for more reliable and more credible projections for the rollout and adoption of different kinds of consumer technologies,â€? says Swallen. He and other members of the group were frustrated by new media forecasts that were â€œoverly optimistic or unrealisticâ€? â€” and often inaccurate â€” because they were usually guided by subjective business interests.
The main problem with conventional new media forecasts, according to the D-Map team, is that they are developed mainly by consultants working for companies that have a vested interest in their outcome and therefore may manipulate their findings to support their agenda. As a result, Neuman says he didn't choose to work with analysts from the private sector to build the D-Map model. Instead, he picked academics, believing that they would not be influenced by corporate self-interests. He also selected diverse corporate media executives, hoping that the cross section of these media representatives would ensure that any self-interests would cancel one another out.
â€œThe problem with studies from some research companies is that there is no opportunity to test their assumptions or vet their research.â€? Swallen says. â€œWith D-Map, users will have the opportunity to interrogate at a much more finite, detailed level, to gain better insights about the drivers that will influence the adoption of new media technologies.â€?
D-Map members acknowledge that they face a formidable challenge in trying to create an objective model for making the sales and growth projections of new media. Others have tried and failed, largely because they were unable to create a model that was viewed as objective, Neuman says. Indeed, the goal of D-Map's forecasting model is to be â€œtransparent,â€? he adds, meaning its theory and methodology will be open to public scrutiny instead of being â€œproprietaryâ€? and vague.
Member companies working to build D-Map have each contributed $20,000 to cover research costs. So far, about a dozen players have contributed more than $250,000.
The ultimate success of D-Map will depend on how well it infects the consciousness of the advertising and media industries. While initial meetings were intentionally kept small to ensure that the creation of the model would not become unwieldy, the organizers hope others will join the team and help build an industry groundswell behind the new model.
Joe Mandese is the editor of Media Buyer's Daily , a sister publication of American Demographics , which covers the supply and demand sides of the advertising marketplace. It targets advertisers, planners, buyers and sellers of media time and space.