Anthony White is a media marketing and research strategist, forging actionable insights for an evolving media environment. He’s been involved in the cable business for many years and is an active CTAM member, having served on both the Research and Mark Awards committees.
In his 1959 monographs, Identity and the Life Cycle, Eric H. Erickson proposed that there are three dimensions by which human behavior can be understood, each naturally commanding specific methods for measurement and investigation.
Erickson argued that: 1) there are ways of conscious experience, accessible to introspection; 2) there are ways of behaving, observable by others; and 3) there are unconscious inner states, determinable by test and analysis. Today’s researchers and marketers will readily recognize these dimensions and should likewise be able to easily match each with current or emerging expressions of any given research technique at their disposal. Indeed, the research taproots supporting much of what we understand about our consumers and audiences extend back nearly 50 years to Erickson’s dimensions and methods.
But if we are largely basing our key decisions on an understanding of the consumer that is yielded from these three dimensions alone – whether those decisions center on designing high-demand products and services, creating engaging brands, or devising effective communication strategies and compelling creative – we are falling short.
What is glaringly missing from Erickson’s work, and consequently what is seemingly missing from the earnest efforts of current day researchers, marketers, and key decision-makers across many operating units, is the recognition and application of a historical dimension.
Particularly in this time of tumultuous change in the media industry and rapidly shifting patterns of consumer consumption and audience viewing patterns, careful consideration of significant historical events and reoccurring patterns becomes critical. Without it, we’re unable to forge a more comprehensive and deeper understanding of possible and probable behavior, and to thereby act reasonably, responsibly and effectively with regard to the specific businesses at hand.
So as a corollary to Erickson’s existing three dimensions, I suggest adding a fourth: There are significant past critical environmental events, subsequent actions, and attendant indelible consequences that can inform the construction of a concrete baseline from which meaningful observations can be made and appropriate context can be provided. In other words, there are overarching patterns of influence and transformation, made evident by the rigor of historical investigation.
The addition of this fourth dimension not only enables more robust insight at the micro level, such as that needed to anticipate individual consumer and audience behavior, but also at the macro level, such as that required to foresee shifts in incumbent and emerging media structures. On both levels, historical research can help broaden our understanding of potential behavior and trends by more deeply understanding past behavior and the resulting trends, such as from the introduction of disruptive technologies, overarching economic, social and global events, and reoccurring generational influences.
On the macro level, a historical survey of developments in media clearly shows that new media alter the structure and functions of older media. For example: Walter Ong charts the impact that the development of writing systems had on the content and the social and cognitive functions of the spoken word; Elizabeth Eisenstein documents the impact of the printed book on the illuminated manuscript and on medieval calligraphic culture; and Marshall McLuhan observes that the development of photography challenged the representative functions of painting and freed artists to explore creativity on canvas by using abstract ideas of color, shape and seeing.
The history of cable television (arguably still being written), in the context of these and other numerous existing media monographs (ancient, medieval or otherwise), provides yet another (albeit more recent) example by which specific repeatable and reliable “tenets” can be cultivated and applied to achieve a greater understanding of today’s evolving landscape.
Three such tenets are:
1) Technological change generates unforeseeable and often counter-intuitive consequences. Think of the early days of the industry when cable was launched as a retransmission technology to boost weak broadcast signals, not to compete head-to-head with them.
2) Predominant media monopolies and/or oligopolies stimulate the development of new media, which ultimately challenge the power structures associated with the incumbent media. Again, think of the rise of cable as a medium that has challenged the broadcast medium on all competitive fronts (as Neil Postman argues, for time, attention, money, prestige, and the dominance of world view).
3) New technologies tend to fragment the way in which people use media, in most cases by providing more choices and thus allowing for more active information seeking. Because of cable, the typical thirty-plus audience share once regularly enjoyed by any one of the “big-three” broadcast networks has long been obliterated by the choices offered by a multitude of cable networks, each super-serving individual needs, tastes, wants and desires.
On the micro level, the application of the historical dimension is an invaluable tool for enriching one’s comprehension of key generational differences that can, in no small measure, be attributed to motivating specific consumer actions and behaviors.
Consider the Millennials: To gain a deeper understanding of the individuals that make up this generation, one must take in consideration how the major events of their formative years (The Persian Gulf War, September 11 attacks, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) impacted their lives and therefore their worldviews. And as importantly, how their media-rich environments (created for them by their Boomer and leading-edge Gen-Xer parents) contributed to their cultural inculcation, and will continue to have a significant effect on their future media consumption patterns and behaviors.
The addition of the historical dimension to any given investigation enables the construction of a more comprehensive and concrete baseline that, once produced, provides a gauge by which one can measure, anticipate, and drive meaningful change.
Optimally, a concerted consideration of the four dimensions can imbue the strategic researcher with the distinct ability to produce a comprehensive picture of the current direction and velocity of behavior, and subsequently forge actionable insights from otherwise “invisible” points of intersection. Likewise, this greater holistic understanding can enable the strategic decision-maker to more readily anticipate, evoke, guide or otherwise modify both the trajectory and the impact of future structures, as well as individual and group behaviors and actions.
In summary, let’s ask to what extent the introduction of the iPad will change the current media landscape regarding content production, distribution and consumption? History is an app to answer that!
Anthony can be reached in his Los Angeles, California office at 310.230.3652 or by e-mail at MediaTwister@aol.com