One of the best research-oriented conferences in the industry is the ARF Re:think, which took place in New York City this past week.
"Re-Think" is an appropriate word to describe the role of research in the media industry today. Research is no longer the corporate function that we have known for the past 30+ years. Instead, it has evolved into a range of disciplines including analytics, strategic insights, big data mining and even storytelling.
Ask someone in research where the greatest challenges are, and they will tend to cite some form of measurement -- whether cross- platform, brand differentiation, market mix modeling, or panel representation. View the range of responses here in a video taken at the conference.
Change is occurring in all aspects of the media landscape. According to keynote speaker J. Walker Smith of The Futures Company, it is now the best and worst of times for brand marketers. Between the extremes of the rise of the digital age that makes our lives more connected and the outrage over societal ills that divide us, there is a kinship economy formed by global rage and a crisis of leadership. This means consumers are buying locally, buying less and forming attitudes that are less favorable to global brands. In some cases they are avoiding certain companies entirely. Their reference points are changing from aspirational to survivalist, and they are breaking away from big authority and forming their own thought leader groups among their peers.
This affects brand engagement. In the old model, it was the brand that engaged the consumer. Now brands are advocated by people interacting with others in the social media environment. Some advertisers are jumping into this new ecosystem and succeeding, such as Nike. We are never going back to the old way, Smith concludes. Brands must evolve or suffer.
A thought-provoking presentation by lunch keynote Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project offered a provocative appraisal of what constitutes happiness. Happiness, he postulated, is measureable. And our states of happiness often occur in what he calls flow states: those meditative "finding your groove" times when the world seems in sync, the creative process expands and intellectual performance improves. Flow, Kotler noted, is becoming increasingly important to businesses, and ways are being developed to measure group flow in the workplace.
Between the personal chi of flow and the external push of kinship economy, how can one ride along with the change before it steamrolls you? Kathy McGettrick of IBM advised us to stay updated and bring social and analytic experts into the research function. She said it would help to become an insights alchemist: someone who combines raw materials together to create gold.
Research companies need to be, as Nielsen’s Paul Donato said, "conspicuously innovative.” Wharton’s Jerry Wind warned to ”avoid the traditional arrogance of traditional companies” and “start to experiment.” Mark Truss of JWT suggested a 1% challenge: “Take 1% of the research budget and use it for experimentation. Try and fail and learn from failure and move on. Volunteer for new experiences.” All very sage advice.
The range of research innovation presented at the conference was heartening, from ESPN’s Blueprint cross-platform measurement, to CBS’ segmentation of Media Trendsetters and Program Passionates, to NBCU’s blending of Comcast STB data with authenticated online tablet and VOD data, to the range of neuroscience-based companies quantifying eye tracking on the various platforms.
Ultimately, I walked away from Re:think 2013 convinced that as the future “flows,” it is our job to keep up-to-date -- as well as up to the data.