Media is pervasive. It's also public, even when it's consumed singularly. Riding on a New York City subway train recently, I sat across from a young man playing a downloaded hip-hop track on his cell phone. The quality of the recording wasn't great, but it was clear enough to be intelligible. And not so long ago, I was on a plane when I noticed a woman intently watching an episode of "Desperate Housewives" on her video iPod.
Another day, as I was reading on the train to my job in Connecticut, every few minutes I heard what sounded like a referee's whistle. It wasn't an actual whistle, of course, but a sound any seasoned gamer would recognize if he grew up playing "Tecmo Bowl," the "Madden" games, or any other sports titles. As I got off the same train, I walked past a guy wholly absorbed in a game on his Sony PSP.
In the Beginning...
The idea of consuming media in public isn't entirely new. People have been reading newspapers and books in public for generations. We consume out-of-home advertising and media via billboards, both static and digital, in Times Square and other outdoor venues on a regular basis. Digital signs are now so sophisticated that we can text our votes and input directly to marketers.
But the public consumption of media has taken on a new dimension since personal media made its way into the public square. I'm not talking about TVs, radios, or jukeboxes in bars, but about personal media taken out of the home.
The public consumption of personalized media truly began when Sony combined its Pressman (a monaural portable cassette recorder) with headphones in late 1979 and dubbed it the "Walkman." We've come a long way since the Walkman, the Watchman (a portable LCD TV), and the boom box. It's now possible to consume nearly any type of content through all kinds of media platforms, and to do so in public. Think iPod, video iPod, PSP, and Treo, for starters. We increasingly find ourselves in public spaces consuming media among friends and, more often, strangers.
Consider the corner of Houston and Lafayette in New York's SoHo area one chilly February night, where bystanders were transfixed by a gigantic billboard mounted with a 3-D Sony PSP running full-motion digital video. People stood on the corner gaping at the video as the walk/don't walk sign changed several times.
Or consider the Super Bowl spectacle. We watch the big game at parties, bars, and in the privacy of our homes. Multimedia installations at museums, malls, amusement parks, and outdoor venues capture our interest and attention. Streaming digital video at sports stadiums and live concert venues, in retail stores, and even in restaurants is more abundant than ever.
Whether a Zen ideal, an Art Linkletter quip, or a quote from "Buckaroo Banzai," the saying "No matter where you go, there you are" has never been more appropriate than when it's applied to how postmodern human beings live.
Consider the factoid cited by WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell that, on average, 18 percent of our time is spent neither at home nor at work. That's just a bit less than four hours a day. That's four hours when people might be doing anything outside the purview of their living rooms or offices. So what are they doing? Maybe they're engaging with media -- consuming it in malls, stadiums, museums, public gardens and parks, elevators, subway stations, on the bus, sidewalks, phone kiosks, sampling events, or even waiting in line at Starbucks.
There are few things as socially uncomfortable as being in an elevator with strangers. I regularly think of Seymour Glass staring at his feet in J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" when riding with someone in close quarters. Now the elevator ride has gone from an awkward experience to yet another chance to consume media. Captivate Networks has managed to fill this brief period with screens in elevators that run weather reports, news, and ads.
Now, at the gym, I can watch TV, surf the Web using a NetPulse broadband-enabled device, and jog while listening to a podcast of They Might Be Giants.
The driving influence behind the consumption of media in public spaces is a combination of two forces: the growing desire for media control and the proliferation of technologies affordable to most consumers. The convergence of these trends has moved media outside the realm of fixed time and space, facilitating this move of private experience into the public eye.
It could be argued that consumer control of media was first introduced with personal recording technologies such as cassette tapes and VHS. But it was the portability of media, and the consumer desire to control when and where those media were consumed, that started to bring media use into the public at large. And the improvement of devices for carrying media around has led to an increase in the variety, volume, and quality of media we can consume in the public sphere.
When it comes to content, the more that's left in the hands of consumers, the more satisfied they are.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, has pointed out that the hyper-personalized nature of media consumption could lead to a kind of information segregation. Content delivery systems could replace the bonds of physical communities with virtual ones.
From a marketing perspective, this means that there might one day be little or no opportunity to "introduce" new products or services to audiences, because they would only be exposed to preselected content and advertising.
But the flip side is that by taking our media with us, we are turning a hyper-personalized experience into a potentially shared one. Rather than simply confirming biases and enclosing ourselves in a self-reflexive bubble of established tastes and interests, we are exposing ourselves to a wider world, and in turn being exposed to others. By sharing our personalized experiences, we are creating social groups.
In this shifting environment, consumers are more socially connected, noisy, and public, taking media wherever they go.
Implications for Marketers
Products that are consumed publicly accrue meaning and relevance. (That's the thinking behind buzz marketing.) For advertisers, this means being in front of the consumer all the time. Are large groups of people gazing at a Jumbotron at the stadium? Advertise there. Are more people watching programming on the bus or in an elevator? Marketers should be there. Are more people consuming specifically chosen media using personal devices? Get brand messages on those devices.
One of the challenges facing marketers, of course, is execution. Even more important, though, is the qualification and quantification of these audiences. How do I know who is engaging a particular medium and how many people are doing so? I would argue that media measurement matters less than content measurement. The future isn't going to be about who or how many people are watching TV, it's going to be about who or how many people are VCasting the Knicks game. How do you track audiences whose media consumption is no longer fettered to time and space?
Next, what defines an audience? If demographics are just proxies for behaviors, and behaviors are just proxies for states of mind, and states of mind may or may not be surrogates for purchasing potential, what is the best way to describe "audience"?
Nielsen Media Re-search ought to help answer these questions, but as the bird on the back of the rhino that is national broadcast advertising, Nielsen doesn't have enough incentive to meter and monitor innovation. Perhaps behavioral targeting companies can find a way to plug into the multitude of devices through which content is consumed. Or perhaps ad-serving companies can.
However the industry winds up providing the tools to convince marketers to allocate resources against decentralized content consumption, the fact remains that modern society consists of media nomads. We consume increasing amounts of media, and we do so without being tethered to a particular "where" or "when."
The control people have always wanted to exert over their lives is now transferable to their media choices. Much like the brands we prefer, the content we consume serves as a symbol of our identity. Bringing our media consumption into the public sphere can be seen as the equivalent of wearing a particular brand of shoes or a T-shirt bearing a logo.
Ultimately we are what we do, and no matter where we go, there we are.