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Surfing All the Channels: Media Research Lab taps into consumer behavior to measure advertising effectiveness

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Must-See TV is dead. Families and friends no longer gather ’round the living room television to catch “The Cosby Show,” “Seinfeld,” “Cheers” or “Friends” at 8 p.m.

Today, Americans live in a time-pressed society where multi-tasking is de rigueur and goes beyond watching TV during dinner. While mass media have evolved over the past 50 years—remember when there were three networks and FM radio delivered high fidelity sound—societal and technological trends over the past five years have fast-forwarded that evolution.

Terry Daugherty
Dr. Terry Daugherty, assistant professor in the Department of Advertising and director of the Media Research Lab.

“New Media,” including the Internet, Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), iPods, BlackBerrys, iPhones, video on-demand and video games, have proliferated of late. With these new technologies comes an explosion of information competing for our attention.

Not only do these technological and societal changes present challenges to the average person, they can confound the metrics-driven media industry—advertisers, marketers, public relations professionals, journalists and more—those trying to communicate a message to consumers and track the results.

“The distinctions between print, broadcast and mobile are disappearing,” said Cindy Wells, manager of interactive media solutions at Tribal DDB, an interactive media agency. “The industry is evolving and everything will become a digital touch point. For example, the billboard will be digitized, consumers will be able to take TV shows on the go all through the device that is most convenient to the consumer.”

Dr. Terry Daugherty is an assistant professor of advertising at The University of Texas at Austin and director of the Media Research Lab in the College of Communication. Daugherty is exploring the strategic, social and technological issues at the core of the media phenomenon and giving researchers across the country the tools to investigate media consumption, measurement variables and the effects of traditional and non-traditional media.

“I’ve always been fascinated with media, how it has evolved, how we are engaged by it and how we rely upon in our daily lives,” said Daugherty who has worked in the media advertising industry. “The mass media are not only delivering new communication vehicles today—the cell phone is now considered an advertising channel—they’re changing how we consume media, including ‘old media.’”

For example, a growing number of Americans today are engaging in simultaneous media consumption because of time pressures, numerous media options, and personal choice, such as listening to music or watching TV while surfing the Internet or reading a magazine.

Chart showing the time spent with select media by U.S. consumers from 2003-2007 in hours per personAccording to eMarketer, 30 percent of total media time is spent multitasking and the more media a person consumes the more likely it is they will multitask.

“What researchers don’t know is the effect multitasking has on the absorption of media messages, whether product placement in music lyrics, video games, television and film is effective, how mass media is best able to communicate health information and how people engage in video games, among hundreds of other questions.”

“The answers to these questions have major implications for the multi-billion dollar media industry,” said Daugherty. “There’s immense pressure in the industry to justify return on investment for advertisers, and there are currently no standard measures to evaluate many of the tactics being used in this changing environment.”

The goal of the Media Research Lab—the only one of its kind in the country—is to provide researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, and other academic institutions and corporations across the country, with the infrastructure to quantify these changes and answer those questions so that media of all kinds can identify new and meaningful ways to connect with their audiences.

Never Let Them See You Sweat

Online since spring 2006, the lab has been used for more than 35 teaching and academic research projects at The University of Texas at Austin, as well as at the University of Southern California, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia, among others.

There are two components to the Media Research Lab: the physical lab itself and the consumer online panel.

The physical lab features collaborative space for planning research, dedicated research stations for conducting experiments and data collection, continuous response measures for collecting immediate feedback, an eye tracking system for monitoring visual behavior for a variety of media and physiological measurement tools for monitoring biological responses to media consumption.

Eye tracking is used to measure visual behavior when consuming media
Eye tracking is used to measure visual behavior when consuming media.

Physiological measurement tools in the lab measure the body’s biological response—heart rate, perspiration and breathing—to various media. So instead of asking subjects how they feel after watching a television program or playing a video game, physiological measurements allow the researcher to observe biological responses that occur during the media exposure to determine precisely what they are experiencing. By monitoring certain physiological measurements, researchers can identify whether a person is enjoying a particular television or radio commercial.

Similarly, the lab’s continuous response devices collect immediate feedback during exposure to media, such as television and movie content. Rather than exposing subjects to a program or advertisement and then asking them to report their evaluation, a continuous response device allows the researcher to record an evaluation from participants during the exposure itself.

This handheld input device—similar to a remote control—enables subjects to continuously indicate on the pad whether or not they like what they’re watching. The researcher then overlays the collected data onto the actual content to examine exactly what content individuals did and did not enjoy.

Eye tracking systems in the lab monitor visual behavior for different types of media. For instance, if someone is monitoring product placement in a television show or video game and the participants never look at the product, the researcher may conclude the placement wasn’t effective.

“Faculty and graduate students associated with the lab are using these systems to address many of the most pressing issues facing media professionals today,” said Daugherty. “From this work, we are learning whether product placements in video games are viable advertising alternatives, why and how consumers use Digital Video Recorders to consume media, and what role user-generated content online plays within the media universe, as well as numerous other media issues.”

20,000 Consumers Around the Globe

With 70 percent of the U.S. population using the Internet, it’s not surprising that online panels are expected to account for the majority of consumer research in the future.

Media Research Lab

More than 30 research papers and articles have resulted from work at the Media Research Lab. Download a PDF of the lab’s recent research.

The second component of the Media Research Lab is the consumer online panel, an opt-in, informed consent, privacy-protected resource of more than 20,000 consumers around the world, who participate in real-time, Web-based research.

The panel was started in 2003 with two goals. The first goal is to provide advertising students with real data to conduct training on primary research methods. The second goal is to provide the infrastructure for students and faculty—from The University of Texas at Austin and other academic institutions—to conduct theoretically driven research using an adult population from around the world.

Panel members must be at least 18 years old to join, and all research conducted is used for academic purposes only. Participation is voluntary with cash prize drawings offered as incentive to join the panel and to participate in individual studies.

“In each of our research classes students develop a research project to analyze current media usage trends and brand preferences,” explained Daugherty. “They start with secondary research and then examine primary research through the panel.

“By using the panel in classroom assignments, students gain first-hand knowledge of managing research data, including the technology and resources required to maintain it and the detailed steps required to execute an online survey or experiment.

Handheld input devices enable research subjects to continuously evaluate media content throughout the experience
Handheld input devices enable research subjects to continuously evaluate media content throughout the experience.

“Not only are these students developing strong analytical abilities through these real-world activities, they also are bridging the gap between the rigor of the classroom and what will be expected of them when they graduate and enter the work force,” he added.

While the consumer online panel helps students develop the skill set for success in media research, strategy, and decision-making, the panel’s biggest potential impact is on the academic study of media.

The online panel provides scholars with an established infrastructure for conducting research. Therefore, many of the barriers typically associated with access to research participants, such as technological expertise, extensive planning time and participant recruitment, are removed or reduced.

“Researchers at other universities pay a small administrative fee to the Department of Advertising for administering the panel survey and are responsible for covering incentive costs, which are cash prize drawings offered to participate in specific studies,” Daugherty said.

Because the panel is maintained and operated internally, rather than outsourced from a private research firm, there is an added level of control that allows for efficient adaptation in accommodating the changing needs of various projects.

Dr. Wendy Macias, associate professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Georgia (and a University of Texas at Austin advertising alumna), and Dr. Sally McMillan, associate professor in the School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee, used the panel last year to identify different groups of online American senior citizens and examine their online health information attitudes and behaviors.

“The panel enabled us to do a broad-based survey among a specialized population, as we wanted to reach Internet users who were over the age of 55,” said McMillan.

Physiological measurements are recorded to observe biological changes when exposed to different television advertisements
Physiological measurements are recorded to observe biological changes when exposed to different television advertisements.

One of the results from their work with the panel is the research paper “My Granny Googles Better than Yours: Factors Influencing Differences in How Older Americans Use the Internet for Health Communication and Information.”

“We found the quality of the panel members to be very high. The response rate and response time were both excellent, and the panel members seemed to take the survey very seriously by providing quality answers and thoughtful responses. Overall, the experience was very positive and I will likely use the panel again in the future.”

Macias and McMillan hope that health information providers will use their panel findings to more effectively communicate with older consumers, which is not a monolithic group, but quite diverse in health attitudes and behaviors.

The Future

“The goal is to increase the number of panel participants to 50,000 over the next three years and to offer our expertise and resources beyond academia to the media industry itself,” said Daugherty.

“Mass media will continue to evolve and consumers will adapt. It’s exciting to speculate what’s next. Thanks to the unparalleled resources in the lab and the panel, researchers—from any organization—have the tools to track and analyze mass media and recommend strategies on how best to engage consumers.”

Anyone interested in participating in the online panel or academics interested in using it may do so by visiting the Media Research Lab.

By Erin Geisler

Photos: Christina Murrey

Source for chart data: eMarketer

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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