On the Record: Can Less Time Mean More?

On the Record:Can Less Time Mean More?-Mike BloxhamPretty much however you choose to measure the time we spend with media - whether self-reported, metered, observed or some combination of these - the time the average person spends with media each day has increased markedly. Bearing in mind the explosion of choices and platforms over the last 30 to 40 years, this is entirely understandable. Probably the simplest way to characterize the development of media over that time is to sum it up in one word - more.

As we come to grips with the Attention Economy, the real battle is not merely for time as a simple, and flawed, indicator of attention, but for quality of attention. Only from quality attention can we expect to achieve the most from our communications. In the on-demand, interactive future, even with the continued proliferation of media outlets, total time spent with media is likely to decrease overall due to the continued increase in consumer control of media experiences, but the quality of that time will improve.

The most widely circulated source suggesting any kind of future decline in time spent with media was the Veronis Suhler Stevenson Communications Industry Forecast for 2007-2011. According to this study, the average consumer spent 0.5 percent less time with media in 2006 than in 2005. Not a catastrophic drop, but interesting. VSS concluded that the primary - though not only - factor was the "efficiency" of digital media.

In broad terms, this is consistent with a research project we undertook at Ball State University to investigate the likely future impact of an increase in household penetration of media devices with capabilities that are likely to impact media consumption and behavior over the next two to three years.

The Media Acceleration Project applied our research method three times during the course of eight months to a sample of 32 people - once before they had acquired their choice of devices from a predetermined list at a 50 percent discount (thereby lessening the "freebie effect") and twice after the devices were in-home.

The intention was to investigate the extent to which behavior changed from the first "pre-Acceleration" round of observations (our benchmark) to the third and final round, after the devices were in-home for enough time for patterns of use to become established. We also conducted qualitative interviews with our subjects to round out the data captured through observation.

One of the most intriguing conclusions drawn from the study was the direct relationship between consumer control and time spent with media. In short, devices that enable consumers to realize the now clichéd (but valid) promise of What You Want, When You Want It, Where You Want It, tend to result in media experiences that deliver higher levels of attention. This makes intuitive sense.

The secondary and more interesting consequence is that while increased control may make for a more attentive viewer - and possibly a viewer who watches more TV overall - the incidence of concurrent media exposure - exposure to two or more media at the same time - falls. As the penetration of DVRs increases, as more people access video on the Web, and as new devices that allow us to control what we see and when we see it reach meaningful levels of market penetration, then we will also likely be harder to advertise to with standard approaches. It's the catch-22 that is so effectively encapsulated in the DVR. Consumers are attentive and involved, but not with the ads fast-forwarded.

Over time, we'll break down our consideration of time spent with media into the media we choose to access and those we incidentally encounter. In the case of the former, if we can crack the challenges of creating new, effective and measurable formats, then it should be that less time equals more impact.

We'll see a significant effect on the business side in no less than 10 years and maybe as much as 20. Consumers will be ahead of that curve, of course, but one can't underestimate the tenacity with which industries cling to existing practices, even as they can see the case for change.

Mike Bloxham is director of insight & research at the Center for Media Design, Ball State University. (
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