How to make the most of the golden age of marketing research

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We have access to more data than ever. But how do we translate it into quality insights? In this Q&A, Dr. Duane Varan, CEO of MediaScience, shares how R&D fits into the latest marketing trends.

Q: Can you speak about some of your most recent research projects? What's the most exciting thing you're working on right now?

A: At MediaScience, we conduct lab experiments from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., seven days a week, so I am incredibly fortunate to live in a sea of insight. For researchers, this is the golden age! There has never been a time when our industries have been more confused and more in need of good solid research to guide the path going forward. So it's an exciting time. And there is so much research that we have done that has materially shaped the media landscape. So when you say "exciting," you have truly captured the spirit of our times.

But if I had to bring my work down to a single project, it would be the "Beyond Thirty Seconds" research project (beyond30.org) that is now in its tenth year. That project, out of my research center at Murdoch University, has benefited from more than $8 million in funding by most of the main TV networks and many leading brands and technology enablers. The project has tested more than 50 new ad models using advanced new research methods such as biometrics, eye gaze, facial coding, and the like. It has more than 15,000 test sessions under its belt. What's amazing about the project is how many insights we've discovered many years before the models really hit the market. So, for example, we were celebrating the power of mobile ads almost 10 years ago, with solid research demonstrating the strength of the platform. Even today, there are many who still haven't come to terms with that reality. And in many cases, we've killed models by testing and then proving how ineffective they really were -- saving our partners countless man hours and dollars unnecessarily backing the wrong horse. To this day, it amazes me to see new models deploy in the market for which we had insights so many years ago. And the research we conduct now paints exciting opportunities and challenges for the near future.

Q: What was the most surprising piece of research you've come across recently and how will/does it affect marketers?

A: We've done a lot of work on the impact of social media, a very hot topic these days. Everyone is pushing social media very aggressively -- with good reason, on the one hand, because it's clearly now a key part of the consumer experience. But some five years ago we did some interesting work demonstrating how people engaging with social media on tablets, mobiles, and PCs while ads were running on TVs was not good news for the brands being advertised on TV. People really can't media multitask. If they are engaged in social media while your ad is on TV, your ad is going to take a massive hit. This is a bigger problem today than fast-forwarding, yet our industry is largely asleep at the wheel on it. So over the past five years we've done lots of research exploring potential solutions to the problem, anticipating a day when the question will be front and center. And we've found a solution: something I call the "cognitive bridge." It's amazing, really.

The problem with media multitasking is that your brain filters out everything it thinks it doesn't need, so TV ads are filtered out. But what we've discovered is that if you have a visual cue in the social media experience linked to the brand, even as simple as a banner ad for the same advertiser, suddenly the brain sees a connection between what's on your second screen and what's on your TV, and so it processes the information. This is something of a miracle, really, because ad impact is suddenly restored.

Now there are lots of technical challenges to building a solution like this in the real world, particularly in synchronizing banner and TV ad, but we like being a step ahead of the game rather than feeling overwhelmed by the perpetual change overriding the market.

Q: Given the advancements in consumer technologies, what are your top predictions for how content marketing will look in the next 6 to 18 months?

In many ways, we had it easy in the past. Roughly 50 percent of the audience for any program was inherited from the program before it. "Audience flow" was the single largest contributor to getting an audience. We had a clearer sense of when and where to promote, with very powerful results.

Now the game is much more complicated, with viewers in increasing control of their own media inventories. So quick and simple solutions no longer suffice.

But in truth, our challenges are no different than those faced by any marketer. Our challenge going forward is to reach consumers wherever they are, on their time. It's less about our supply and more about their demand. This requires research, and it requires a spirit of enterprise and innovation. This necessitates a very different kind of organizational culture. The biggest mistake you could make is to deny this fundamental truth.

So going into the future, expect content marketers to be more like all marketers, relying on many more platforms and touchpoints to find and follow their consumers wherever they are. And there's no question that good research is front and center to building any such strategy.

 

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