MEDIA MYTHS AND REALITIES: A PUBLIC OF ONE
2007 MEDIA USAGE SURVEY
David Rockland: This year’s survey included consumers in Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). What was the most surprising finding about media usage in those countries? And what implications do you see for communicators trying to reach consumers in those markets?
Teri Daley: It is interesting that in the BRIC countries the media are less trusted than company Web sites. As a communicator trying to reach the consumers in those markets, concentrating on company communication vehicles should be the primary means for reaching consumers. The challenge then becomes driving them to your information.
Purvee Jain: I was surprised by the clear distinction when it comes to the kind of information consumers are seeking from a particular medium. For instance, when it comes to newspapers, people prefer local over national newspapers. However, when it comes to TV, consumers prefer national news channels over local news.
“The survey results are eye-opening because they show just how large the disparity is between the adoption and use of new media such as blogs and social networking sites in China and other BRIC markets and in the more developed market in the U.S.”
Tanya Madison: While there is more balance between the use of traditional and new media channels in the BRIC countries, the credibility tied to those channels by consumers varies greatly. As with any communications and marketing effort, it’s critical that communicators optimize media and other outreach to consumers by ensuring that the media channels that they select appeal to consumers on many levels, with relevance that is both cultural and reputational.
Simeon Mellalieu: It is a well established fact that adoption of new technologies and media is happening faster in China than in other more mature markets. This is largely a result of the fact that catchup with developed markets is achieved by leapfrogging technologies. Still, the survey results are eye-opening because they show just how large the disparity is between the use of new media such as blogs and social networking sites in China and other BRIC markets and new media usage in the more developed market of the U.S. I would not have expected China to be quite so far ahead.
Jerry Swerling: I was really taken aback by the extent to which the BRIC countries are embracing all types of “new” media, which I prefer to think of as “personal” media because these channels are so easily tailored to the personal needs of the user. For example, the 19 percent of U.S. respondents who said they had used blogs compares to 30 percent in India, 32 percent in Russia, 41 percent in China, and an amazing 43 percent in Brazil. Likewise, while we think of search engine usage as being ubiquitous in the U.S., the 60 percent usage in the States compares with 61 percent in China, 67 percent in India, 82 percent in Russia and 85 percent in Brazil.
The implications are far-reaching. At a minimum, the data suggest that these countries could be incredibly useful laboratories for the creation of new strategies and that traditionally minded communicators will be left in the dust in those countries. This is a wake-up call, especially for U.S.-centric multinationals and American public diplomacy. To directly reach consumers, it is even more important for communicators to use new media channels in the BRIC markets than it is in the U.S.
Rockland: This year’s survey was subtitled “A Public of One” because of all the responses that indicate that consumers are looking for something more personalized than “mass media.” In what ways do you see communicators or your own programs moving toward a more personalized approach?
Daley: We are designing programs that ensure a highly customized, personal conversation with our clients’ key stakeholders. We have to communicate on their terms, which means we must know what information they are interested in, how to demonstrate real value during conversation, and how they want to receive that information. Communication today requires a two-way dialogue—not just pushing company messages out there. That’s a paradigm shift with which many companies still struggle.
Madison: Businesses and other organizations that can look at a media audience and break the demographic into smaller and smaller segments—conveying messaging that particularly resonates with that “profiled” group—will have an engaged and winning response. For example, drilling down a segment from all dog owners to dog owners of purebreds to dog owners of purebreds that weigh 30 pounds or less moves to a niche where the audience feels “this article was written just for me.” The same message targeting can be applied to users of credit cards.
“Though I have only a fraction of the readers on the blog that I had, in theory, when I had a column in one of the nation’s biggest newspapers, I know those readers are there for what I’m writing, not just skimming over on the way to the sports pages.”
Michael Maslov: Even the most conservative of our clients are now paying more attention to personalized communications, understanding that mass media and advertising are not reaching their audiences as effectively as they were just a few years ago. This includes programs targeting customers and influencers directly through social media, blogs and Internet-based communities, as well as more targeted offline communications of our clients with their publics directly and not through the news media.
Mellalieu: While clearly illustrating the use of blogs and social networking sites by consumers, the survey also shows where communicators are in targeting these information sources, alongside a rather curious fixation on corporate Web sites as the most effective communications channel for news. In China, the PR scene is still very focused on traditional media such as newspapers and magazines. This is largely due to an inability to measure the impact or influence of new media on target audiences and the fact that such social media outlets are seen as less credible than traditional media—a fact borne out by this survey. Corporate Web content also is lower on the agenda as a communications channel in China, and this is justified in the survey results as only 24 percent of those surveyed in China use company Web sites as a source of information. These data show that the correct approach should be to strike a better balance between traditional and new media in future communication strategies.
Ben Smith: I write a political blog geared toward people who care about and follow the U.S. presidential campaign in great detail. Though I have only a fraction of the readers on the blog that I had, in theory, when I had a column in one of the nation's biggest newspapers, I know those readers are there for what I'm writing, not just skimming over on the way to the sports pages. It's great to know your audience that well and to be able to assume that they're following the beat closely.
“Communication today requires a two-way dialogue—not just pushing company messages out there. That’s a paradigm shift with which many companies still struggle.”
Swerling: Our whole business was built, and has matured, on the back of a mass media model. It has been all about reaching the largest number of people in the most cost-efficient way possible. That’s why contrivances like circulation, impressions and ad equivalency—which say nothing about real communication—have been accepted as adequate measurement tools. Similarly, as our profession has taken on more of the trappings of marketing, we have begun to think of people in terms of marketing-oriented mass audiences based on demographics, psychographics, etc. As a result, communicators have come to see people in terms of large, faceless, fairly static masses—lacking real texture and dimensions.
The mass media and mass audience models combined to create a mindset that is totally at odds with the highly dynamic and personalized direction communication is now taking. The “public of one” concept argues that we need to do a far better job of understanding the unique, personal characteristics that draw groups together around subjects, causes or media channels—and how they might quickly disband as those subjects, causes and channels evolve. The bottom line is that we need to think of more sophisticated uses of research in campaign planning, plus far more personalized and experiential strategies and tactics to make our organizations part of the “public of one’s” life experience.
Rockland: The survey found that 60 percent of consumers use search engines. How do you see search engines affecting communications strategies?
Daley: I believe it is an indicator that consumers are looking for multiple points of view. Search engines enable them to find news coverage, consumer blogs and analyst reports quickly to gain a broader view before making their own decisions. For our clients, this means that they must have a strong interactive strategy that includes search engine optimization as well as sustainable outreach programs targeting online media and bloggers.
Purvee: The use of search engines indicates that consumers are seeking personalized information. As marketers, we all agree that today’s consumer has less time, which results in a thin attention span. So marketers have to invest in keywords that will minimize consumers’ time during the search process.
Swerling: The data make it clear that communicators need to think of their organizations as content providers, which most do not. But I must admit that the data also worry me a bit. We talk a lot about the possible adverse effects of media consolidation on the ability of people to seek out and avail themselves of diverse content and points of view, but those discussions focus on traditional media conglomerates rather than the search engines that increasingly are determining where people are going to find information. Yes, search is a great on-ramp to what used to be called the information superhighway, but that on-ramp is totally controlled by just a few commercially motivated organizations.
Rockland: What did you find most surprising about the media channels communicators view as most effective compared to the ones that consumers use most or consider most credible?
Daley: I noticed the fact that communicators place a greater emphasis on corporate Web sites while consumers said they relied more on local newspapers, but I don’t think this was surprising at all. Communication teams continue to be under-resourced, so I believe they focus on the communication vehicles that they think give them the broadest or highest-profile exposure. Getting down to the local level takes a great deal of effort and must be localized to be of interest to those outlets. That is very time-consuming and can be an expensive proposition for many communication teams.
“Over time we have come to feel more comfortable with channels over which we can exert some degree of control or influence, such as our own Web sites, trade media or local media. The problem is that we came to confuse comfort with effectiveness. Consumers are telling us that the media in our comfort zone don’t cut it.”
Madison: I did find it surprising that the communicators survey relied heavily on their companies' Web sites to proactively convey news about their businesses and that they use their Web sites as the preferred channel to respond to issues and crises, while consumers ranked Web sites in the middle of the pack as the media channel they refer to. At a time when consumers have more access to company information than ever before, it's a bit surprising that they still turn to other sources first.
Swerling: All of us who grew up in the field and helped it reach its current level of maturity did so using the mass media model as our holy grail. One of our goals was to exert as much influence and control as we could over messaging that went out into a generally uncontrollable mass media environment. Over time we have come to feel more comfortable with channels over which we can exert some degree of control or influence, such as our own Web sites, trade media or local media. The problem is that we came to confuse comfort with effectiveness. Consumers are telling us that the media in our comfort zone don’t cut it.
Rockland: Family and friends once again ranked high among sources that consumers turn to for advice when making decisions. Do you see these influencers playing a broader role in communications strategies? Why?
Daley: Word of mouth always has been important to attracting customers, and it will become even more critical to the communications function as we continue to see credibility issues and the decline or consolidation in media outlets.
Purvee: The human angle is definitely critical. But this survey clearly differentiates between advice from family and friends and advice from colleagues. Credibility-wise they are considered almost equal, but when it comes to actually getting advice, consumers turn to family and friends before colleagues. One of our most notable word-of-mouth campaigns in India focused on friends and family. The campaign was for an oral contraceptive, and our main issue was that women were aware of the pill but few used any contraception. We literally called it “Goli ke hamjoli,” which means friends of the pill. It included on-ground events that featured “happy pill users” as brand ambassadors and developed support systems for women to get more information about the pill. The program also included men’s group conversations because we understand that men are major influencers in Indian women’s decisions to use any contraception method. Through this word-of-mouth campaign and other PR efforts, the oral contraception pill category grew by 48 percent between 1998 and 2003.
Mellalieu: For the past two years, the Media Myths and Realities survey has clearly shown the importance of referrals from family and friends in decision making. This is the first time I think we are seeing quantifiable evidence of this in China. However, I do think that the PR profession as a whole has recognized that sometimes to reach target audiences using both direct and indirect lines of communication is necessary—for instance, using mothers to reach children and wives to reach husbands.
Maslov: People are overloaded with information reaching them from all possible sources—every one of us daily receives tens if not hundreds of messages trying to influence or sell something. Too often this information is not relevant and generally is not welcome, and it sometimes should not even be trusted. People are starting to look for a safe harbor where they can be protected from this annoying media storm. They want to choose themselves—and not be chosen—so they turn to their families and friends, people they can trust and who would be least likely to abuse. I think it is quite natural that these sources are playing such an important role and, moreover, I think that this role will be increasing.
Rockland: The survey findings show that consumers across all age groups seem to be using more media channels than ever before. Were you surprised by the findings in any age group or media outlet? And why?
Daley: As expected, the 18-24 age group is relying more on the newer technology and is less interested in traditional outlets. What was surprising was to see the big increase in blogs and social networking sites among the higher age ranges (55-64 and 65-plus). This provides new opportunities for communicators to reach this demographic in a faster and undiluted manner. The trick will be to ensure we are customizing information so that it is suitable for their interests and life stages.
Smith: No. Blogs are old media at this point. They've carved out their chunk of the landscape, but people are moving on to places that allow freer lateral communication and organization than a blog's comments section, notably and obviously, social networking sites like Facebook.
Swerling: What surprises me is not the number of choices people are making, but rather the pace with which change is taking place. While I doubt that the mass media model will ever completely go the way of the dinosaurs, it’s clear that as today’s early teens and preteens reach maturity, they will do so with a whole new set of expectations vis-à-vis the availability of information and social interaction. That will happen within just a few years. Somehow, I don’t think we’re ready.
Rockland: Which finding(s) do you think has the greatest implication for the practice of public relations? Why?
Purvee: Sources that have high credibility, above 50 percent, are being referred to less. But these sources are generally used by the influencers who shape opinions. So marketers need to give specific product-related information through these sources. That information can later create word of mouth among the general population.
Maslov: While the survey’s key message that PR should be personalized is not new and unheard of, few communicators realize that this point is so vital for companies in competitive market contexts. The more educated, independent and experienced an audience becomes, the more selective and thoughtful communicators need to be. The fact that people in all countries, including Russia, ranked search engines as the first or second source in making purchase decisions speaks for itself—search engines allow a person to get news and information only from the sources that they consider to be adequate.
The survey also underlines the importance of interaction with new media (blogs, video-hosting sites, social networks, etc.). This type of communication is quite new and should be a high priority, particularly for Russian companies’ PR departments and agencies.
Mellalieu: The results clearly show the continuing importance of television in the media mix, and I believe that underscores the idea that we should not abandon traditional media totally. Television has the ability to reach enormous audiences. More importantly, the medium is consistently considered to be the most credible source of information—a fact borne out by these results and particularly so in China. When you consider that the biggest TV channel in China, CCTV1, can reach practically all of China’s 1.1 billion people, this eclipses the market’s Internet population of around 150 million even if it is the world’s largest.
The fact is that your average consumer now has access to an ever-expanding range of media. Modern-day communicators need to have the best possible appreciation of the channels open to them and consider the best mix to utilize to meet the business objectives presented to them.
Swerling: If you try to look at a pointillist painting too closely, all you see are dots and daubs. You need to step back and see the entire picture to get the totality. It’s the same with our data and the communications picture. Look too closely and you’ll say, “OK, we’ll all do a blogging program,” or “I guess I should figure out who our third-party influencers are.” Frankly, those are dots and daubs. What’s happening is tectonic change that could undermine the entire mass media model upon which our profession was built. The big question is what model will emerge and who will be in charge?