Insights have become a vehicle for influencing marketing and
ultimately, the world. That’s why next in our Insights as a Vehicle for
Influence interview series, we sat down with Sam Ford, a media executive,
consultant, and research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing. In
our conversation, he shed some light on how the media industry has changed and
how media companies can do a better job at reaching the ‘new age’ consumer.
What is the state of
the media research industry in 2017?
Media research is in an interesting state at the moment. On
the one hand, there’s more to potentially research than ever before. Quantitatively,
there’s more to research than ever before, and organizations are finding new
ways to collect, synthesize, and make sense of all the data they are bringing
However, with that influx of data, there still remains a
certain surety in what it’s saying, without necessarily enough questioning of
whether we’re asking the right questions. I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time
in the media industries gathering the data that is easiest to gather, or that
feels the most similar to what we’ve always gathered, leading organizations to
continue to be driven by impressions-and-reach-based models, when they may
often not be serving the needs of media companies, advertisers, or audiences
all that well.
Meanwhile, there are more opportunities than ever to do
great qualitative research, from audience experience projects to netnography,
but organizations often have not prioritized/invested in these methods. Many
organizations are making deeper investments into digital research, but all too
often the teams aren’t connected in the ways they should be to maximize
effectiveness and minimize redundancy. And, most importantly of all, the sort
of pattern recognition most important for good insights work may not be
positioned in many media companies in a way that allows it to contribute all it
can. After all, gathering data, qualitative insights, benchmarking, and
thoughts about future trends are all only useful if there are ways all of this
is being synthesized, analyzed, and brought to the table for key decisions being
made across the organization.
What have been the
biggest changes in the industry since you started your career?
I’ve spent years on different sides of these questions. I
began my career as a journalist. For the past 12 years, I’ve tackled these
questions most consistently from an academic’s perspective, looking at these
questions from outside the day-to-day needs of a particular media organization.
I have spent many years consulting with big brands from a marketing and PR
standpoint. And I spent much of the past two years working at a media company
operating in the network television, cable television, digital publishing, and
digital video distribution spaces.
Across all those vantage points, I’ve seen an industry
weathering a prolonged period of massive change, largely by finding ways to
hold as closely as it can to an ongoing semblance of normalcy’which is to be
expected in an industry where businesses can never truly close up shop. We’ve
seen an acceptance that you can’t fight change throughout the media industries,
but it has come along with a desire to cling to the broadcast model.
Have the influx of
social media and mobile made your job easier or harder?
Media companies, and advertisers, used to have very few
methods to really understand and listen to their audiences. We have all sorts
of new methods to be able to do that now. So, rather than having to create
aggregate stand-ins like customer segmentation profiles for our audience, we
have more access to those real people than ever before.
However, with that overabundance of information, we’ve
strangely found ourselves in a similar position as when we didn’t have enough
information’relying too often on ways of understanding audiences that may not
be the most insightful. In this case, it’s what’s easiest to collect or feel
concrete about, in a world where the overabundance of potential information
gives us the feeling of chaos.
How has the media
consumer changed in the past few years?
I don’t suppose people have changed all that much, in the
sense that the way audiences are using technology often mirrors things people
have always wanted to do but couldn’t necessarily do so as easily, or’if they
did’happened in ways that media companies or advertisers couldn’t easily
detect. People want to keep media content. People want to share media content.
People want to talk back to media content. People like to have as much control
as they can over their choices. Now that those options are becoming easier,
viewers have to think even more deeply about how they want to engage with
different types of programming.
If I can watch a series at my own pace, what do I want that
pace to be? Do I watch different types of programming at different types of
paces? When do I want to engage more deeply with media content, versus when do
I want to engage more passively? As media organizations put more effort into
engaging active audiences, it leaves those audiences to think about when,
where, and how they want to participate.
How can media companies do a better job
reaching the new age consumer?
I think we are only scratching the surface of what we can do
to really resonate with audiences. Most importantly, I believe, is finding as
many ways as possible to put ourselves in the shoes of the audience members who
are coming to us on purpose. As we get away from reach metrics as the
cornerstone of our business models, it allows us to think about how we as an
industry build around the sort of CRM models that drive subscription-based businesses’that
lead to fostering an active audience base engaging with you on purpose, and
No matter what type of media company you are, it seems that
this is the most important, stable, and lucrative part of the audience, but the
one that business models have all too often driven companies to neglect and
take for granted. When we are imagining each month’s digital traffic goals or
viewership goals as tabula rasa, then everything becomes focused on driving as
much general-audience interest as possible in what we do.
And for those organizations that do, for instance,
serialized programming or subscription models, there’s still a lot of work to
be done to really understand and think about everything the media company does
from the shoes of that active audience. How do they want to engage with the
content? What else do they want from the media brand? Why do they become
proselytizers? How do you identify audiences already engaged in similar content
but who haven’t yet found their way to you? In such a cluttered media landscape
as we have today, we can’t take for granted that people will quickly find us.
What is the biggest
challenge in the media industry today?
We have machines built around pushing what’s on/coming out
now, not for maintaining the longevity of content that has the potential for a
long shelf-life. In an era where a good portion of media content is available
for on-demand engagement later, we have to think about how we support machines
that are much better at monetizing media products over time, thinking about
investments in content for which the ROI may come slowly but which may continue
on for years, if supported in the right way.
We see glimpses of this in how subscription services think
about investment in original content production’and I recommend everyone read
Amanda Lotz’s new treatise Portals
a way to dig more deeply into these questions. But media businesses, and the
research teams that support them, have to think about how to recalibrate the
machines we’ve built over the last few decades to these new types of questions.
Where do you see
media research moving in 5 years?
I hope to see media researchers continue to make great
strides in helping organizations create meaningful media texts which
demonstrate an understanding of what audiences want and how audiences want to
engage them. I hope to see research and insights work, as a function, taken
increasingly serious by corporate decision-makers who need the expertise that
the best of the research & insights field have to offer.
In an era where so much remains up in the air about the
media industries, and where trust in media companies has been a topic of common
popular discussion, it’s up to media researchers to think about the role they
can play as catalysts for a discussion about how we build models that serve
content producers, media companies, advertisers, and audiences better than what
we have right now. If we don’t take advantage of the current liminal moment for
the television industry (See M.J. Robinson’s work on this in the forthcoming
), then I don’t know what will make us seriously tackle these
questions until models start falling apart.
Sam Ford is a media
executive, consultant, and research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media
Studies/Writing. He also teaches in the Popular Culture Studies Program at
Western Kentucky University. In 2015-2016, he founded and ran the
Univision/Fusion Media Group Center for Innovation and Engagement, as VP,
Innovation & Engagement, for Fusion. He is also co-author of the 2013 book, Spreadable
Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. More on his