Rethink 'prime time'

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At a time when America is running from advertising as fast as it can click, advertising return-on-investment depends on a new definition of "prime time." To be designated prime time, a medium must be capable of riveting its audience-and that connection must be measured.

There's an "involvement index" conversation now emerging within major agencies that's aimed at applying standardized audience-connection measurements to magazines. Similar data exist to do this for TV, radio, even the Internet. As ad people, we should jump at the chance to prove the connection of media on a level playing field. Only when we reverse the time warp of media will we reliably reach interested consumers when and where they're willing to engage, and thereby restore the intended value of advertising.

As it stands, marketing is out of step with the rhythm of modern life. The classical marketing rulebook was written 40 years ago, when nuclear families convened at scheduled hours for meatloaf and Uncle Miltie. The advertising machine still follows the tenet of those times: If you wanted a lifetime brand relationship with America, and could afford it, you advertised to the enrapt masses in prime-time TV.

Update strategies

Back then, a marketer's role was to get people to notice the brand. Today, it's to get them to spend enough time with the ad message to appreciate the brand's difference in a marketplace of unprecedented choice. This requires adapting communication strategies to the controlled chaos of modern life.

Peek in on the "average family" on a weeknight. One kid's got hockey practice, another a basketball game, a third her history-exam study chat on the Internet, and Mom's working late. Dad's posted a note in the kitchen-"Chicken, veggies, salad in fridge. Help yourself"-on his way out. Thankfully, the golden retriever has a doggie door.

When they do watch TV, "enrapture" hardly characterizes the routine tug of war over who controls the remote. They're too time-compressed, over-tasked and fractionated to function according to the TV network clock any more. Their lives have a rhythm all their own-a rhythm we marketers had better start to take seriously.

We can begin by recognizing prime time is no longer a "time of day." It's a frame of mind. Prime time is "my time," those prized moments when a consumer is tuned in to media and open to content. It may be a train ride, a nightly curl-up on the sofa, a truly engaging TV show, the half-hour in the parking lot waiting for kids' soccer practice to end. Whether or not it's on a schedule, the consumer is in control of it.

Astute marketers preach the imperative of "prime time" with consumers, yet our ingrained rulebook of marketing keeps us pouring the lion's share of budgets into national "prime-time" TV, despite audience declines (average 18-49 broadcast network ratings are down 45% since 1988) and zapping. Every so often, an advertiser creates a "whassup" that captures consumers' imagination. For most companies, though, that's tantamount to betting the future on one roll of the dice. They're paying prime rates but they aren't achieving prime time with consumers.

The irony in all of this is we send researchers around the world to understand every nuance about our consumers' lives except for how they interrelate with media. Consumer insights aren't often applied to the point of contact, where the big money is spent.

The solution isn't abandoning TV advertising. Nor is it expanding the list of public places where we chase our "targets," from movie theaters to bathroom stalls. It is evolving the purpose of the media machine-from getting attention to forging relationships.

A new mantra for media

For starters, "find the right frame of mind" should be the new mantra for media decision makers. Instead of attempting to wrest notice from consumers with meticulously produced film when they aren't really paying attention, we can consciously plan for connection. That connection starts with finding moments when consumers are willing to give us time to communicate a relevant message.

Research into consumers' lifestyles needs to include when and how they actually give dedicated time to advertising media. Frame of mind-when, where and how consumers will engage-must set the parameters for the creative process. Media planning needs to synchronize the message with the medium. A :15 can communicate a $1,000 rebate on a car that consumers already know, but a :30 probably won't communicate its driving characteristics vs. the competition.

And, finally, media need to spend where target-consumer involvement, not just audience size, is greatest. Only then can advertisers reasonably expect ROI.

While you may expect a magazine executive to question TV investments, don't miss the point: All media (and all communication plans) need to measure up to the involvement ideal. Media's the impact point of advertising, which remains business' primary customer-generating tool. It's up to all of us to reverse the time warp so we can catch up to consumers-on their turf, on their terms and on their clock. Business is banking on it.

Dom Rossi (dom_rossi@rd.com) is executive publisher, U.S. magazines, at Reader's Digest Association.

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