The advertising research foundation (ARF) is making a valiant effort to champion "engagement" as the future of communications metrics. Its insistence that the metrics be reliable, valid, and predictive is exactly right. ARF's definition, arrived at this summer, announces: "Engagement is turning on a prospect to brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context."
We frequently see different strategies from competing research companies on how to deliver measures of brand idea impacts, association of brand idea to surrounding context, and general scoring of media contexts. The techniques vary but the viewpoint is consistent: All these researchers look in from the outside through focus groups, surveys, and statistical modeling. No one delivers the whole package in a continuous, syndicated format. The multitude of brands, communication channels, ideas, and contexts makes this a formidable challenge for traditional research sampling frameworks.
The Internet continues to disrupt the mass-audience worldview, niche-ifying almost everything through a proliferation of individualized content and connections. This in turn makes outside-looking-in research hard to do. Researchers who need continuous measurements can either have representative samples with limited measurements or rich data with no sense of representation, but not both. It simply costs too much.
In San Francisco, a new idea is emerging from a group called AttentionTrust. Its idea: to switch the research paradigm from outside looking in to inside looking out. As the AttentionTrust folks point out, "When you pay attention to something (and when you ignore something), data is created. This 'attention data' is a valuable resource that reflects your interests, your activities, and your values, and it serves as a proxy for your attention." They are talking about the Internet, but with the right economic model this concept could easily expand offline.
The AttentionTrust viewpoint is to let people record their behavior and then sell it. The similarity to the direct-marketing model is striking. The points of difference are, 1) Now the "merge/purge" name lists have extensive continuous behavior associated with them, and, 2) The data are being provided by consumers, so permission is explicit. The premise is that people are more willing to supply information to marketers if they have reasonable control and ownership of it - and more likely to trust a company if the company's reputation is tied to how transparently it handles consumer-permissioned data.
Expecting consumers to volunteer for research sounds strange, especially as current market and media researchers struggle to get people to cooperate. What's new is the perspective. Today's youth are proactively shaping the future of media. Digital technologies and applications are letting people control and create media, and social media communities are teaching them how. The result is a new research worldview. The outside-in research measures how advertisers control consumers with engagement metrics. The inside-out research measures through attention how people are controlling media, communications, and messaging.
The logical extension of the inside-out worldview is that consumers can not only "sell" their information but also analyze, edit, share, and barter it.
Root.net sees this vision and is building the relationships and infrastructure to turn rich databases into attention currency. Maybe the reality of sample sizes and the fluid nature of digital media will flip the research worldview from outside-in to inside-out. More likely, the two research worldviews will blend, covering both poles of the media market, from the blockbusters at one end to the more personal niche offerings further down the "long tail." Companies like Root.net may partner with traditional "hits" measurement currencies to provide holistic communication campaign tools. Or they may find tighter marriages with consumer database companies like Experian and Equifax.
Imagine 60 million names and addresses with assorted financial and consumer attributes extended with a year's worth of Internet activity - browsing, reading, watching, listening, downloading, and purchasing. Imagine if you tied this to the data TiVo now makes available. The nature of analyzing and targeting marketing communications would change rather quickly in this new data-rich environment.
Mark Green is senior vice president, media services, ACNielsen Analytic Consulting, and the founding partner of the Media Learning Institute. (firstname.lastname@example.org)