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Portable People Meters: Closing the Loop, or Hawthorne Effect?

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Jon Gertner had an interesting piece on an industry in turmoil. The writing on the wall suggests that recent trends in the media landscape have sent mainstream advertising and marketing scrambling to develop new ways to measure media effects to demonstrate value.  Time-shifting devises such as TiVo, on-demand content, and other digital video recorders, combined with a splintered of mainstream media channels for niche audiences, have made measurement increasingly complex and expensive.

The answer, according to the ratings industry, has been to produce more robust random samples,  remove self-reporting (human error and bias), and implement automated recording mechanisms that detect media exposure - i.e., replace personal media journals with portable people meters (PPMs) that read masked frequencies contained in broadcasts and match this data with the demographics of participants. 

Gertner reports that Arbitron is testing this measurement model this summer in Houston. It reminds me of a famous study of Hawthorn Plant of Western Electric conducted by the Harvard Business School in the late Twenties.  Researchers recorded changes in productivity levels among workers based on different stimuli. The researchers concluded that it wasn't the stimuli producing the changes, but the attention given to the subjects of the study that produced the observed effects. Survey researchers studying controversial social issues often times observe a similar phenomenon when respondents offer answers they think researchers want to hear - responses that are "socially desirable." 

The Arbitron study seems to run into trouble with assumptions on two fronts: 1) clipping a black box onto your clothing doesn't influence behavior; and 2) the sample of participants is random and not substantially different from the part of the sample that dropped off or didn't want to participate.  Research organizations will continue to triangulate data and will come up with better estimates, but this seems like a loosing battle for an industry built on mainstream and mass market media channels.

I think Arbtiron, Nielsen and other research organizations would be better served  asking a different set of question. What characteristics of media content results in audience attention? Why do niche communities engage with media content? And when does media lead to persuasion and behavioral change? Many social psych studies show that behavioral engagement results from appeals to values, self-interest, and important reference-groups. This is the core of niche marketing and the future of content matching for media buying agencies.  It also hints at a future model for ratings: analyzing how different segments, or layers, of niche communities, latent communities, and the general public respond to media content.  A key metric in the future may be the extent to which media content generates word-of-mouth endorsement and promotion from influentials within target communities out to other publics.

I agree with John Winson's post in Beyond the Brand that these punctuated changes in the media landscape can be viewed as chaos or opportunity, depending on the lens you use.  For the new media marketing consultant, the splintering of media channels simply provides a more direct avenue for reaching niche communities. The burden for successful marketing within this context falls on the content provider: can you create marketing experiences that resonate with community values and interests? The economic imperative for niche marketing becomes very clear when set against the backdrop of Chris Anderson's long tail perspective. He has a resent post in his blog that highlights key parts of Gertner's article - definitely worth checking out.

April 13, 2005 | Permalink


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