How Reading — and Readers — Are Changing

President’s Letter

Naomi S. Baron, linguistics professor at American University in Washington, D.C., will be talking about her latest book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, at the ACT 6 Conference at the University of Mississippi in April.   

After reading Professor Baron’s book and talking with her, I am really looking forward to her presentation, based on empirical research from an international sample of younger readers. She has already helped me to understand the fundamental change in the way we read, and what that means. It can be very difficult for older people who came out from either side of the media business to really get their hands around, because much of her research contradicts what we see in the trade press and what “everybody knows.”

Here’s an example. Last summer I had the opportunity to travel to a number of eastern colleges with my daughter. We always ended up visiting the library during the last part of the tour. In many cases, it was pointed out to us that printing in the library was now free.  While we all like free services, that did not seem particularly important to me at the time.  Later, Professor Baron provided the necessary context.  Although textbooks are often provided in a downloadable format, many students actually print them out chapter by chapter so they can make notes! This got me thinking about where we might be headed.

I have often noticed that my daughter can listen to her music, text on her iPhone, work on her Mac computer, watch television in the background, and read a textbook—at the same time—and I do mean all at the same time! It’s as if she were “flowing” through the media options. 

Watching her, I realized that neither my generation nor even the one after us was really able to consume media this way.  To us it would have been jarring, like listening to radio and television programs simultaneously. Our parents and teachers even insisted that we turn off the radio when we were studying. When I went to school, I would either read the material first and then listen to the teacher or professor lecture about it, or the other way around—not both at once. We learned to process our media serially, one at a time. There was a lot of talk about learning styles, and we came to prefer one medium over another.

When I was trained in media planning, we were taught that people have a primary media preference, and all research-oriented agency media planners learned to do media quintile analyses based on this premise. We needed to determine if the target group was more likely to be heavy newspaper readers, television viewers or radio listeners so that we could allocate budgets effectively. It was particularly easy because FCC rules prevented newspaper companies from owning television stations in the same market or vice versa.

Problem is, younger consumers don’t behave in this manner anymore. They don’t really have a principal platform through which they get information. Or if they do today, they may change tomorrow. They get what they want when they want it in whatever way seems most suitable to them at the time.  It’s very fluid.

Very often, they get their information through several channels at once!  Last year, Accenture released a report, Digital Video and the Connected Consumer, which showed not only that television viewing was dropping by 13% globally, but also that 87% of consumers who have multiple devices use more than one at a time.  In any case, current research isn’t really capable of allocating the amount of influence each medium is having when several are being consumed at once.

The report found that the trend is particularly strong for millennials, with 74% of 14-to-17-year-olds worldwide using a combination of TV/smartphones during viewing (in North America a laptop/computer was used more frequently for simultaneous viewing (59% vs. 42% for smartphones).

So where are we headed here if the day of using one dominant medium is over?  

Because future trends are still unclear, it may be necessary to try several approaches at once to gain experience in whichever approach that will eventually emerge as most important. If young people are using several devices simultaneously, how do marketers know where to advertise?  

One thought is cross-device targeting, which promises the ability to target the same consumer from one connected device to another. That sounds great, but there are lots of obstacles on the way to achieving this beneficial goal.   First, it is very difficult. Research from Signal, a cross-channel marketing technology provider, reveals that only 6% of respondents feel that they have a single view of the customer (March 2015)! 

Without an adequate single view of the individual consumer’s media usage, how effective can any attempted cross-device solution be?  A December 2015 article in eMarketer states that, “Without a universal methodology for cross-screen identification and execution, there can be no alignment between publishers and providers.” The article reports that brands and publishers are focusing intensely now on understanding their own audiences. 

This intense focus on first-party data improves the ability of brands and media companies to act as ad agencies focused on their own audiences.  I think media companies will start to produce a lot more creative tailored to the specific audience, which should increase frequency of exposure through the various channels.

Part of this development is that some publishers are assuming greater responsibility for creation of advertising.  Hearkening back to the practices of the late 18th century, some magazine sellers are now providing creative services and making ads. 

All of these trends are interesting and may become very important.  But there is another phenomenon that promises to have a huge impact on those of us in the advertising industry. There is a good chance that artificial intelligence and predictive behavioral targeting will turn our world upside down even more than anything we have currently imagined. I fervently hope—and therefore believe—that those who can see advertising possibilities will do well.