FEATURE1 November 2010

Viewing figures

Magnus Willis, founding partner of Sparkler, on a text message-based research project that helped Channel 4 shed light on viewing habits.

The challenge
The world of television is changing at a dizzying pace. Hardly a week goes by without a new channel being launched or a new piece of technology promising to revolutionise our viewing forever. It is hard to believe that there were once only a handful of channels, which could only arrive in your living room via an aerial, and whose schedules dictated the only times you could watch them. Now choice and flexibility are the order of the day – we can now pretty much watch whatever we want.

“TV marketing these days requires a good deal more than a couple of good trails and some favourable editorial in the Radio Times”

These developments have made TV marketing infinitely more complex. Of course, the key question remains the same – How can you best influence viewing decisions in your favour? – but the practicalities of answering it couldn’t have changed more. Successful TV marketing these days requires a good deal more than a couple of good trails and some favourable editorial in the Radio Times.

As with all successful marketing, one building block is the detailed understanding of how your consumers make their decisions. In this respect, the choice of what to watch on telly has always been complex. It goes without saying that it is both a repertoire market (people consume multiple brands) and in many instances an impulse market also (people make decisions in the moment), but it is also a market where decisions are made without any financial cost - you can sample a programme for ten seconds then change channels, and all you’ve lost is your ten seconds. This can make TV viewing decisions even more irrational and open to short-term change.

The brief
?Against this backdrop Channel 4’s marketing team wanted to get under the skin of the fast-changing world of TV decision-making and planning. They wanted to explore how people plan what to watch and how this varies across programme genres. They wanted to identify the key drivers of viewing decisions, such as on-air marketing or word of mouth, and how these relate to each other. Finally, they wanted to understand the nitty-gritty of how viewers’ plans are executed (or not) in the moment.

The approach
?As with all research that looks to understand decision-making, the challenge is to get as close to the actual decisions as possible without actually influencing them. As such, the decision to undertake a series of in-home ethnographic sessions with follow-up interviews was pretty straightforward, but we were keen to both have a volume of specific decisions to work with (ethnography being particularly inefficient in this regard) and not be too reliant on people’s post-rationalised claims about their behaviour.

In this context the growth of mobile phones, and texting in particular, offered us a real opportunity to get in among people’s real-time decision-making. And to do so with a sufficient number and variety of people that could give us insights into a decent volume of decisions, across a wide variety of content types.

Appreciating the potency of mobile, the priority was to shape a methodology that would harness its potential to our objectives. With this in mind, we developed a methodology that fused mobile texting, written diaries and face-to-face depth interviews. Specifically, we recruited 35 respondents to undertake a six-day in-market planning pre-task which involved tracking people’s viewing plans by text message and getting them to write a review of their actual behaviour, on alternate days. This exercise was then followed with depth interview to explore the viewing dynamics evident from the pre-task.

Although the behavioural review days took the form of a pretty traditional structured diary that respondents could fill in themselves, the days where we tracked people’s planning were periods of intense dialogue between Sparkler and the respondents – it wouldn’t have been enough to rely on respondents to just text us when they fancied it. Each day would begin with the question, ‘Are you planning to watch anything on TV tonight?’ and after answering that, respondents would send us ad hoc prompts through the day to inform us if anything had happened that was likely to affect their plans. Our depth interviews, following the six-day texting/diary task were devoted to exploring the relationship between what was planned, and what actually happened.

The findings
?As we had hoped, this approach shed light on the world of TV decision-making. Although it illustrated the habitual nature of some viewing – soaps, news – it also provided a powerful sense of how many decisions can be both random and spontaneous, not to mention how plans can so easily get thrown off track by external factors that end up shaping decisions in the moment.

Our early correspondence began highlighting the lack of a plan:
“Not planning on watching anything particular tonight”
“Haven’t got any plans at the minute – will keep you informed if anything changes.”

Even looking at a TV Guide might have no impact:
“Read the TV Page in The Sun today… still no plans of what I might watch”

But word of mouth commendations came into play late in the day:
“Chatting to the wife, she mentioned a programme on BBC3 at 9pm called Undercover Princes.”

Whilst on other occasions, some habitual behaviour was all that could be predicted. And once again external factors such as friends, on-air ads or who else is in the room, that can have a bearing on outcomes at a late stage.

So for example one respondent was “Planning to watch EastEnders tonight and that’s about it” (from the text) but in the end “watched Emmerdale, EastEnders, Holby City (forgot it was on and noticed a TV ad) and Shameless (friend reminded me it was on)” from the diary.

Meanwhile another respondent was wanting “to watch the Krypton Factor. I am planning on watching One Born Every Minute as a friend of mine recommended it to me.” But in the end “watched Friends, Hollyoaks (housemate watches it every night) and Scrubs (a friend came round who watches it).”

The outcome
?Looking at our more valid assessment of the factors shaping people’s viewing decisions, Channel 4 has not only appreciated the overwhelming importance of in-the-moment factors but has begun to develop more advanced marketing strategies that take them into consideration. Channel 4’s head of marketing, Rufus Ratcliffe, said: “The Viewing Drivers project, and in particular the use of mobile texts, helped us further understand what drives viewers to choose the programmes they watch, and reminded us of the challenges we face. The insights created from this project have helped us across many aspects of our planned marketing activity.”

What next?
?The use of mobile text messaging gave Sparkler something unique in getting close to people’s real decision-making processes. That said, the success of the project wasn’t just down to the mobile texting methodology but a broader perspective of the challenge we were facing and the methodologies that could help – of which mobile texting was one. With this work under our belt, we are already involved in developing ways of taking this expertise, in both decision-making and mobile, into other markets.

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