I’ve been obsessed for years with understanding how we consume types of media – what’s going on in people’s lives, environment, and heads when they read, watch or listen to the things we write, produce, record, create, publish and whatnot. How do our eyes move when we the page of a book, newspaper or magazine?
That used to be pretty easy. We had some nice rules of thumb that, if overly simplistic, still reflected the real world to a degree.
Radio was something we listened to in the car. Now, we have TV stations that carry video of guys sitting in front of microphones, doing radio call-in shows. TV was something we watched in our living rooms. Today, we time shift and binge watch – to the extent that Netflix has begun producing programming an entire series at a time, as it did with its House of Cards series.
Our ways of measuring how people use media are lagging horribly behind the real world. On a given day, I’m likely to listen to the audio podcast of a program I missed the night before while getting ready for work, then end it by watching an episode or two of a series I missed when it was running 20 years ago. In between, while standing in line or stuck on hold, I’ll check the RSS feeds of 15 or 20 different media sites.
What I almost never do is use any medium the way it was originally intended. I rarely read an article by visiting the publisher’s web site. I consume radio content mainly by reading. Except for sporting events, I rarely watch a TV show when it originally airs. I probably consume more audio books than printed, and I generally get my music during the day by navigating screens on a television.
And speaking of television, how does the tablet in our lap (which we now call the “second screen”) affect what we’re actually absorbing on TV? The old methods of establishing ratings by hanging a box on on the back of a set to record what channel was on at which times don’t cut it any more, though Nielsen is trying to adapt. Sometimes the “second screen” seems to focus our attention better, especially with shows that promote Twitter conversations (the “B” movie Sharknado and the Breaking Bad series are great examples, as are a lot of football games). But when we’re watching a sitcom and browsing the news on our smartphones at the same time, we’re missing something.
All of this creates a measurement nightmare.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this during the last few days, as we’ve been getting new “circulation” numbers from the Alliance for Audited Media. USA Today raised a few eyebrows by bragging about its 1,690-percent increase in digital editions, when the change really just reflected the newspaper’s decision to start including readers gained through mobile apps.
Games get played, as media pick and choose what to include in their “metrics” and how to spin it.
This presents massive challenges to anybody who’s trying to make advertising decisions. Top-line circulation numbers mean next to nothing, and the AAM cautions against comparing different outlets.
I usually try to offer sound advice at www.newmediarules.com, but in this case, the flux is so great – and the universe of variables so large – that the best I can do is offer up a general caution to know what you’re buying! Get the best numbers you can for the edition you can buy, while resigning yourself to the fact that the salesperson trying to take your money can’t answer most of your questions.
Here are some good ones to ask, just the same:
- What’s the circulation? How much of that is paid, and how much of it is complimentary?
- If you’re including apps in your readership numbers, will my ad actually appear in an app? How often? In what context?
- Are you giving me numbers for combined circulation, or for the edition I’m buying?
- Will my online ad appear behind a paywall, or can anybody see it? (Note that readers/viewers/listeners who pay usually make up a higher quality audience.)
- How much of your television audience watches live, as opposed to recording and watching later?
- Does your TV or radio show have a podcast? How many subscribers? Do you redact the commercials or include them in the podcast?
- How many of the “hits” on your web site are unique users? How many are real people versus crawlers and web bots?
I could go on for pages, but you get the idea. I expect most of these questions will just get you a blank look, because the media themselves are hopelessly lost and behind.
For now, there’s no rulebook – just a toolbox. And the main tool is a healthy dose of skepticism and a willingness to ask hard questions.