January 10, 2008
The Place of Social Reaction in Media Measurement

The media industries adapt to change very slowly. That I have established several times. In some ways, this is necessarily so. The infrastructure that the industry has built for itself helps major media companies weather the tests of time, but they also keep them from being nimble enough to change very easily.

Media research is no different.

Last July, I wrote:

There's little doubt that the process of measuring television viewership based on a modest sampling of American homes became less and less relevant as television viewing became more and more fragmented. Now, as traditional "television" viewing patterns are moving to a variety of new platforms and a variety of time-shifting behaviors, the whole model of the linear television channel is showing cracks, as well as its supporting advertising system.

Nowhere is this more prevalent to me than in how Web 2.0 has brought to the forefront the lack of nuance industry measurement standards give to the ways media actually impact people's lives. Focus groups and surveys, the qualitative and quantitative sides of traditional industry research, have many benefits, but they have always been limited because of the heavy hand of those who create such surveys. Now, Web 2.0 gives a window into the ways in which media texts and advertisements have always actually existed--as social texts that only become activated through user discussions and responses.

Some people treat these social behaviors as new. The only part that's actually new, though, is that online versions of these discussions leave a textual trail. What happens in online discussion groups and on the blogosphere is actually just a tiny percentage of the interpersonal conversations and "buzz" that takes place around media properties on a regular basis. Those who act as if online forums are a completely new thing are ignoring that this has always been a pivotal part of the ways in which people consume and enjoy media.

This is where we get back to the industry, though. I have done substantial work about how fans are engaging online and giving unprecedented amounts of written feedback that could be mined by media properties and brands in meaningful ways. The problem is that many media folks that I talk to are quick to espouse the shortcomings of using online discussion groups in any meaningful way while fully accepting the shortcomings of focus groups and surveys as necessary evils.

Back in November, I wrote:

The business has often found ways to discredit the use of fan communities online, while accepting the shortcomings of survey research and focus groups. I have never envisioned online community research, or "netnography" using Kozinets' term, as a replacement for these other, more controlled environments, but I think these research methods do provide a good check on the limitations of controlled research, by going and finding fans where they live.

Kozinets writes in particular about companies like Cymfony, a Boston-based company that was purchased earlier this year by TNS Media Intelligence. I had a chance to talk this past week with Jim Nail, Cymfony's chief marketing and strategy officer, and I am very interested in the developments of tools like theirs to try and find ways to value online community feedback.

Nail actually ended up participating in our discussion on audience measurement at FoE2, with the video and audio now available, and we discussed some of these very issues there.

When we think about ways of valuing engagement, social interaction around media texts, and other, more qualitative measures of understanding depth of engagement instead of total number of impressions, the impact of social interaction around media texts and brands starts to matter, not just in reality (where it always has) but in the constructed world of media measurement as well.

In that vein, I wanted to point toward a report Joe Becker directed my attention to not long ago, from The Aberdeen Group, on how social media is becoming "a key factor in the quest for return on marketing investment." It's worth a read.

Also, see my note on a couple of groups operating in this space, Fanscape and Communispace.