media marketplace: In the Eye of The Beholder

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Researchers are turning to consumer perceptions of media in order to understand usage.

Like millions of Americans, you wake up, grab your first cup of coffee, and tune in, sleepy-eyed, to The Today Show on NBC. Why not ABC's Good Morning America or NPR's Morning Edition? You're probably in a "relationship" with the morning show and its cohosts, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.

Researchers say understanding the feelings and perceptions of particular media by consumers may help explain why some are loyal to certain shows, and may even help identify which shows they'll embrace in the future. Now that quantitative media measurement - who's watching, when, and for how long - has come of age, the time is ripe, these analysts say, to explain the motivations behind that usage in order to assess the future performance of media brands. It will be a key factor for marketers already juggling overly stretched advertising budgets in an era in which thousands of media options are available to consumers.

Their task has been made even more complicated by the vitality of media brands, which keep reinventing themselves. Sports Illustrated, for example, is no longer just a magazine, but, with CNN, a TV sports-news network (CNN/SI). Cable channel ESPN, conversely, is now a magazine. And CBS, once perceived as the most stolid network brand, is now associated with some of the most dynamic Web sites, including CBS MarketWatch and CBS SportsLine. Meanwhile, in one of the more ironic turns, new-media brand America Online hopes soon to morph into an old-media incarnation (AOL TV).

Still, until recently, little research had been done to show whether and how media brands actually influence consumer behavior. But now, media operations of big Madison Avenue shops are borrowing sophisticated research techniques that were developed by their parent companies to understand and manage conventional consumer brands. The Media Edge (TME), for example, the independent media services division of Young & Rubicam, has incorporated Y&R's proprietary Brand Asset Valuator system, known as Media BAV, into its media planning and buying arsenal, to analyze viewers' perceptions and behavioral motivations regarding hundreds of media brands. BBDO's media department is using the general agency's Brand Fitness technique. And other companies are mining various forms of syndicated research, such as Marketing Evaluations' TVQ scores.

Even Nielsen Media Research, which tracks audience usage, has gotten into the act. The TV ratings giant recently introduced several new analytical tools, including its Quad analysis system, which segments program ratings data into loyal and frequent viewers. While some of these measures help explain who watches what, this new research is also showing why, and what factors induce them to do so, researchers say.

"It's becoming increasingly important in this fragmented audience environment that you stand for something and that you give viewers what they want," says David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president of planning and research. Poltrack has been pushing CBS to hone its brand identity in order to reinforce its relationship with its core viewers: adults aged 35-plus. The strategy appears to be working. With the support of Leslie Moonves, CBS president and programming chief, the network has sharpened its focus on older viewers and, as a result, stanched some of the erosion that has plagued it over the past several seasons.

A fundamental part of CBS's strategy, Poltrack says, has been to use brand perception research to determine which programs and genres best match a network's brand identity. He cautions, however, that even the more sophisticated analytical systems cannot find a strong correlation between how consumers feel about media brands and whether or not they actually watch them. And a new analysis by The Myers Group, using a tool called the Media Brand Tracker, bears out Poltrack's assessment. Consumers surveyed by Myers between May and July 1999 ranked such pristine television brands as The Discovery Channel, The Weather Channel, The Learning Channel, PBS, and The History Channel as the strongest across eight core-brand attributes, including "proud to be a viewer." But according to Nielsen ratings during the same period, the leaders garnered only a small slice of actual TV usage.

Discovery Channel, for example, may be the most powerful brand, but it had only 0.4 percent of the prime-time audience (see chart). NBC, conversely, which ranked 10th in brand attributes, enjoyed a 4.0 percent share of the total prime-time audience, more than any other TV network. While other factors contributed to these audience shares, including fewer homes available to the cable networks, the analysis shows little correlation between media brand perceptions and usage.

And yet those brand perceptions will drive future media use, some researchers argue, as a fragmented media environment will drive more and more viewers to niche programming. It is just that sort of predictive modeling that is at the core of TME's Media BAV. By understanding what the attributes of a media brand are and how those attributes motivate consumer behavior, the agency feels it can predict the success or failure of a given TV show.

Killing off Homicide, for example, may have seemed like a mystery to some, but not to Joe Abruzzo, TME executive vice president and director of marketing and media research. Abruzzo says an analysis of the core components of the Homicide brand, using Media BAV, indicates the show performed extraordinarily well in only one of four key BAV attributes, differentiation. But it did particularly poorly among the remaining three: relevance, esteem, and knowledge.

The finding, says Abruzzo, shows a somewhat different pattern than what Y&R has experienced when analyzing general consumer brands, where differentiation is the key determinant to their success. Among media brands, he says, it is stature - the esteem and knowledge viewers have for TV brands - that is the key driver.

"Because of fragmentation, there are so many options available to a consumer that differentiation is not enough," Abruzzo says. "You have to be both different and relevant to them. That appears to be the case when you look at Media BAV data for TV's top-rated show, ER, which is considered highly differentiated by most consumers, but also highly relevant to them.

Agencies, meanwhile, are beginning to use such research not just for planning TV schedules, but for determining what form of media their clients' brands should use for their ad messages. And the research is revealing some surprising findings.

Utilizing its Brand Fitness technique, BBDO, for example, asked consumers to identify what types of people are users of various media. They then asked the respondents about the types of people they wanted to be associated with. By correlating the two responses, the agency was able to determine which media earned the highest affinity scores by consumers.

If you guessed TV or radio, which rate highest in usage (46.3 percent and 30.6 percent of time spent with media by consumers, respectively, according to Veronis, Suhler & Associates), you guessed wrong (see chart). Surprisingly, consumers have the greatest affinity for magazines, which account for only 2.4 percent of consumer media time, followed by the Internet (with a scant 1.2 percent of consumer media time). Newspapers were about in the middle.

Karen Olshan, executive vice president and director of strategic operations for BBDO, New York, says the findings don't necessarily indicate that magazines are better than, say, TV. But she believes it is a fundamental indicator of how marketers should use each medium to get messages across about their brands. That might mean different media mixes for some brands, or tailored messages created for media that consumers have differing affinities for.

"To the degree that the medium is the message," says Olshan, "it's nice to have your ad in a medium that has the same imagery and affinity as your brand's message."

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