Five Years Later – An Answer to Lance’s Question (kind of)

112309-woman-internetIt never ceases to amaze me how writing can take you down the most unexpected paths, if you let it. Over 5 years ago now, I wrote a post called “Chasing Digital Fluff – Who Cares about What’s Hot?” It was a rant, and it was aimed at marketer’s preoccupation with what the latest bright shiny object was. At the time, it was social. My point was that true loyalty needs stabilization in habits to emerge. If you’re constantly chasing the latest thing, your audience will be in a constant state of churn. You’d be practicing “drive-by” marketing. If you want to find stability, target what your audience finds useful.

This post caused my friend Lance Loveday to ask a very valid question…”What about entertainment?” Do we develop loyalty to things that are entertaining? So, I started with a series of posts on the Psychology of Entertainment. What types of things do we find entertaining? How do we react to stories, or humor, or violence? And how do audiences build around entertainment? As I explored the research on the topic, I came to the conclusion that entertainment is a by-product of several human needs – the need to bond socially, the need to be special, our appreciation for others whom we believe to be special, a quest for social status and artificially stimulated tweaks to our oldest instincts – to survive and to procreate. In other words, after a long and exhausting journey, I concluded that entertainment lives in our phenotype, not our genotype. Entertainment serves no direct evolutionary purpose, but it lives in the shadows of many things that do.

So, what does this mean for stability of an audience for entertainment? Here, there is good news, and bad news. The good news is that the raw elements of entertainment haven’t really changed that much in the last several thousand years. We can still be entertained by a story that the ancient Romans might have told. Shakespeare still plays well to a modern audience. Dickens is my favorite author and it’s been 144 years since his last novel was published. We haven’t lost our evolved tastes for the basic building blocks of entertainment. But, on the bad news side, we do have a pretty fickle history when it comes to the platforms we use to consume our entertainment.

This then introduces a conundrum for the marketer. Typically, our marketing channels are linked to platforms, not content. And technology has made this an increasingly difficult challenge. While we may connect to, and develop a loyalty for, specific entertainment content, it’s hard for marketers to know which platform we may consume that content on. Take Dickens for example. Even if you, the marketer, knows there’s a high likelihood that I may enjoy something by Dickens in the next year, you won’t know if I’ll read a book on my iPad, pick up an actual book or watch a movie on any one of several screens. I’m loyal to Dickens, but I’m agnostic as to which platform I use to connect with his work. As long as marketing is tied to entertainment channels, and not entertainment content, we are restricted to targeting our audience in an ad hoc and transitory manner. This is one reason why brands have rushed to use product placement and other types of embedded advertising, where the message is set free from the fickleness of platform delivery challenges. If you happen to be a fan of American Idol, you’re going to see the Coke and Ford brands displayed prominently whether you watch on TV, your laptop, your tablet or your smartphone.

It’s interesting to reflect on the evolution of electronic media advertising and how it’s come full circle in this one regard. In the beginning, brands sponsored specific shows. Advertising messages were embedded in the content. Soon, however, networks, which controlled the only consumption choice available, realized it was far more profitable to decouple advertising from the content and run it in freestanding blocks during breaks in their programming. This decoupling was fine as long as there was no fragmentation in the channels available to consume the content, but obviously this is no longer the case. We now watch TV on our schedule, at our convenience, through the device of our choice. Content has been decoupled from the platform, leaving the owners of those platforms scrambling to evolve their revenue models.

So – we’re back to the beginning. If we want to stabilize our audience to allow for longer-term relationship building, what are our options? Obviously, entertainment offers some significant challenges in this regard, due mainly to the fragmentation of platforms we use to consume that content. If we use usefulness as a measure, the main factor in determining loyalty is frequency and stability. If you provide a platform that becomes a habit, as Google has, then you’ll have a fairly stable audience. It won’t destabilize until there is a significant enough resetting of user expectations, forcing the audience to abandon habits (always very tough to do) and start searching for another useful tool that is a better match for the reset expectations. If this happens, you’ll be continually following your audience through multiple technology adoption curves. Still, it seems that usefulness offers a better shot at a stable audience than entertainment.

But there’s still one factor we haven’t explored – what part does social connection play? Obviously, this is a huge question that the revenue models of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others will depend on. So, with entertainment and usefulness explored ad nauseum, in the series of posts, I’ll start tracking down the Psychology of Social connection.

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