InSight: The Fun in Funnels

InSight Graeme HuttonBesides changing the way people connect to each other, the social media revolution is also changing advertising research. When considering social media, personal communication technology such as social networks, handheld devices and digital video cameras get the most attention because they enable consumers to create their own Web content with increasing ease. Yet that is only half the picture.

The combining forces of burgeoning social media technologies and the resistance to mass media conventions are leading to the collapse of the classic advertising model, the purchase funnel. This collapse will likely impact many advertising research concepts.

Consumers are increasingly resistant to mass media advertising, a phenomenon created by technology like the DVR. It has also taken other forms: Anyone can check a marketer's claim by searching the Web for comparative product sites or user groups. Also, the very nature of mass media is changing. Digital editions and other platform alternatives are transforming how traditional media are consumed. For example, out of the 6,700 magazines in the United States, there are 5,900 digital edition equivalents. Today's consumers generally fall into two categories: ad-literate and ad-avoidant. Universal McCann qualitative research shows both types are quick to spot mundane, predictable product placement.

According to the funnel model, a consumer moves down a funnel from the top, the widest level of awareness, through progressively narrower elements of consideration, preference, purchase and loyalty. The purchase funnel has influenced advertising research thinking ever since the AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) moniker was created in the first half of the 20th century.

But as social media comes to the fore, the purchase funnel is quickly becoming outdated. In August 2007, Brian Haven of Forrester Research declared, "The marketing funnel overlooks the complexity social media introduces into the buying process." He added, "We live in a socially charged era in which peers influence each other as much as companies do."

When I lived in the UK, one of my clients, a major car company, undertook a word-of-mouth study. Results of the study indicated that if there was a consistent defect in one of their models, such as a car door that didn't shut properly, it would take 18 months for that knowledge to become widespread. No auto manufacturer today would have the luxury of such a time lag.

Consumers increasingly move effortlessly between the parallel media worlds of mass-media communications and user-created social media. The world of advertising and media research has yet to catch up.

In my opinion, overall macro studies like Simmons or MRI are unlikely to do it all, and I foresee a number of developments:

>> Quantitative media research focused on one medium, such as Nielsen TV or Arbitron radio, is progressively likely to be limited to selling and buying media.

>> Line extensions of multi-media syndicated research will cover specific categories such as retail, consumer electronics and travel.

>> Datafusions will increase in popularity where marketers can fuse their attitude and usage studies or tailor user segmentation analytics to media research.

>> Media hub surveys similar to the UK's IPA TouchPoints will be adopted in many more countries, possibly even the United States.

I also predict we will see a boom in total communications research. A field once led by Integration with its powerful MarketContact Audit-validated communications has been joined by products from Millward Brown, Ipsos and Pointlogic, among others. Also, reach and frequency will increasingly be seen as inadequate metrics for comparing advertising media with broader channels, such as branded merchandise and dedicated retail outlets.

Overall, media research of the future will look more like communications research, taking on a much more overarching role, from the media management of plans and buys to the quest for communications channel leadership. To draw from business visionary Peter Drucker, it will no longer be enough for researchers to ask, Are we doing things right? Instead we will have to pose a deeper, more searching question: Are we doing the right thing?

Graeme Hutton is senior vice president and director of consumer insights at Universal McCann. (

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