How Consumers Use Media Rethinking Conventional Wisdom

How Consumers Use Media Rethinking Conventional Wisdom

Susan D. Whiting

, Vice Chair & Executive Vice President, The Nielsen Company

Of the myriad challenges confronting the television industry, the much-discussed defection by viewers to online and mobile platforms may be the most comforting; simply because it hasn’t happened. Despite the profusion of multimedia computers, broadband Internet connections and portable video devices, the overwhelming majority of Americans are staying right where they are – in front of their TV sets inside their homes.

That is just one finding from a new, year-long Video Consumer Mapping study, which calls into question several current presumptions about media consumption. Conducted by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design and Sequent Partners, and funded by The Nielsen Company, the $3.5 million research project was produced on behalf of the Council for Research Excellence, an independent body of broadcast, cable and advertising professionals and associations.

Though primarily focused on television and video, the study quite literally examined how consumers incorporate all forms of media into their daily lives. To that end, researchers observed, first-hand, 376 individuals in five major markets (Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta and Seattle) throughout an entire day as they were exposed to visual content across a full spectrum of platforms. Observers also tracked a special Accelerated Panel in the Indianapolis market, whose 100 members specifically engaged with selected new media devices. In all, the more than 950 observed days generated an abundance of comprehensive data related to screens on televisions, computers, cell phones and even GPS navigation systems.

Yet this ability to directly monitor and record individuals’ activities all through their waking hours – in increments as concise as every 10 seconds – also provides unique insights that sometimes starkly contrast with participants’ own recall. In questionnaires completed by panel members a day after being observed, TV use was substantially underreported, although the observation data confirmed earlier Nielsen research that more than 99 percent of all consumer screen time is still spent with television.

On the other hand, respondents significantly over-reported both online video and mobile video use. Though computing has replaced radio as the number two media activity, video on PCs actually averaged just two minutes (slightly more than 0.5 percent) a day; whereas exposure to video on mobile phones was too small to measure without a much larger sample. Indeed, by any measure TV in the home still dominates viewing behavior – whether in terms of daily reach (94 percent) or average daily duration (5.5 hours) – among all adults.

Market researchers know full well to exercise caution when interpreting self-reported information by consumers about their exposure to multiple media, because most people find it hard to accurately gauge the time they spend. One reason may be that TV viewing is such a familiar activity it is easily taken for granted; while watching video on newer technologies is still unique enough to engender disproportionate attention, and possibly skew outcomes.

Thus, it should not be a complete surprise that media multitasking, a skill set regularly associated with 18 to 24-year old “digital natives,” is, in truth, practiced among all age groups 55 and under. Nor, for that matter, is the fact that TV viewers are exposed, on average, to 72 minutes per day of commercials and promos, dispelling the commonly-held notion that audiences avidly avoid most ads in television programs.

Conventional wisdom is frequently based on old assumptions that ignore or dismiss the emergence of new ideas. In this instance, however, some of the new ideas may essentially represent a collective rush to judgment.

For one thing, enduring changes in consumer behavior rarely happen overnight. They tend to be a lot more subversive than revolutionary, becoming apparent only after years of continuous adaptation. For another, predictions about new technologies sometimes underestimate the staying power of the products and systems they seek to replace. Even among digital natives, who are exposed to twice as many different screens as those 65 and older (10 versus 5), live TV occupies the largest share of media time.

Nonetheless, many pundits limit their perspectives to only a handful of big, popular concepts when drawing conclusions, either failing or choosing to overlook a wider choice of possibilities. But in an expanding and simultaneously fragmenting media universe, the capacity to leverage a multitude of resources and opinions is crucial.

This is why the Video Consumer Mapping study substantially enhances the body of knowledge about how people use media. Not only does it capture critical data through extensive direct observation rather than merely count on less reliable responses via diaries or telephone interviews, but it also reflects the diversity of interests and objectives across the Council for Research Excellence. By bringing together what are often competing points of view and applying them to a truly rich array of facts, it exceeds conventional wisdom. The result is both a broader and deeper understanding of just how much the market is changing; and forcefully consumers are driving that change; and how profoundly it affects all parties.