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How perception clashes with reality when people tell you about their TV viewing habits

Dan Plant is group strategy director and real time planning director at MEC. With 15 years' media planning experience across 15 different categories, 30 different clients and at least 100 different brands, with combined media budgets in excess of £1bn in the UK, there isn’t much in marketing that Dan hasn’t seen.

I have become increasingly fascinated with the disparity between reality and perceptions in our marketing world. I believe that in our exciting digital world this gap is preventing us from developing creative campaigns that manage to be both innovative and effective (it shouldn’t be a choice!).

Be guided by facts, not feelings, says Dan Plant

I am excited about our industry’s opportunity to be at the forefront of technological development – driving value with consumers through new forms of engaging communications. But if we don’t base our communications choices on realties and truths rather than perceptions and opinions then we will fail to be truly effective AND cost efficient – and efficient effectiveness is all that really matters.

Let me digress for a moment. During the last general election campaign there was a great deal of focus on the proportion of the national budget that was being spent on benefits and specifically unemployment benefit or fraudulent disability benefit. Politicians tended to focus on an amount in “billions” (a number which no normal person really understands) and would highlight these sums for political gain.

And it had the desired effect – an Ipsos Mori study showed that 40 per cent of people thought that unemployment benefits represented a greater or at least equal proportion of the UK benefits budget to pensions when in fact pension benefits represent 15 times the amount of money spent on unemployment allowance. With disability benefits, the average person thought that 24 per cent of disability benefits were claimed fraudulently when in fact official estimates put the figure at around 0.7 per cent. These are vast gulfs between reality and perception. Personally I believe that these misapprehensions played a significant part in the re-election of a Conservative, austerity focused government.

The disparity in these numbers was actually well publicised at the time of the Ipsos Mori survey and were well referenced by proponents of behavioural economics in explaining how “mental availability” of information can massively skew people’s expectations and behaviours.

In turn, us marketing folk repeatedly quote these behavioural economics principles in trying to understand how to “nudge” people towards our brands.

What I then find strange is that marketing practitioners still so heavily rely on people’s perceptions of their own behaviour in trying to understand their media consumption. If people are so bad at assessing the behaviour of others, why do we think they would be much better at accurately perceiving their own?

This issue was brought into stark contrast for me when I recently read this article based on a study by Forrester. The article opens: “Most young people say that they have stopped watching TV: Regular, 'linear' TV viewing — watching scheduled TV as it is broadcast, in other words — is dying.”

As a media strategist, this naturally caught my attention, but not because it was new information to me, but because of the way the information was being interpreted.

The key word in the headline was 'say'. “Most young people say they have stopped watching TV” . The writer then translated this to a concrete fact that “linear TV is dying”. This is not an appropriate conclusion from the data. Reading deeper, the specific statement that they are quoting is “only 46 per cent of people say that they have watched linear TV as it broadcast in the past month”. This question was asked in the context of: “In which of the following ways do you watch video in a typical month."

The only true conclusion from this data is that with the wealth of video watching options available, people think that they no longer watch live TV. We cannot actually conclude that people DO no longer watch live TV – it may be indicative evidence, but it is not conclusive.

The reason that I know that this must be the only true conclusion is that three months after this survey was released, Nielsen published its own 2015 Q1 Total Audience report.

In this study, we see that actually in a given week (not month!) 87 per cent of all people watch live TV.

This is a study of actual measured (not claimed) media consumption, both penetration and volume, against an array of audiences. When taken against claimed behaviour, observed behaviour is by far the more robust and reliable factual source

This shows us that the conclusions made from the Forrester data are simply wrong. It may be that only 46 per cent of people think they watch live TV in a given month, but the fact is that the vast majority (87 per cent) do watch it in a given week. People can be very wrong in remembering their own behaviours.

Not only this, but the Nielsen data also shows that the average person in the US doesn’t just watch live TV a small amount per week, (say just the news or live sporting events). The data shows that people actually watch nearly 10 times as much live TV (151 hours per month) as they do timeshifted TV (16 hours per month) and on average only spend 12 hours per month watching video on the internet.

Again this clashes horribly with the Forrester claimed behaviour of “millennials”, 34 per cent of whom claim they watch more than 4 hours of TV on the internet every week. In fact Neilsen demonstrates that the average 18-34 year old watches only 1.56 hours per week of any kind of online video.

What is particularly interesting is that according to Forrester, only 12 per cent of GenXers and Baby boomers claim to watch more than 4 hours of online TV per month, yet according to Nielsen they only watch marginally less than millenials (1.39 hours per week).

This is strange – why do younger people think that they watch so much more online video than older people when per week it is only 17 minutes different? There is an important insight here worth gleaning, but it is not that young people don’t watch TV.

What I take out from this is that we need to be incredibly careful about treating claimed behaviour of any kind as in any way an absolute measure of how we should distribute our media and marketing spend. We need to always assess these claims in the light of observable actual behaviours to really understand what people are doing.

I believe that broad sweeping statements such as “TV is dead” are highly problematic because in twisting our own industry perceptions we then distort the relative value and cost of media in the market and in turn our ability to deliver cost effective campaigns.

I believe in the power of digital media to transform a media plan and dramatically improve its effectiveness, but this needs to be done in the context of a holistic media solution which has been assessed according to facts and truths rather than opinions and misplaced perceptions. The sooner we get a consistent and reliable holistic view of actual media behaviours the better. More importantly, we need to let facts, not feelings, guide our decisions if we want to be effective for our brands.

Dan Plant is group strategy director and real-time planning director at MEC

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Dan Plant

Dan is a group strategy director and real-time planning director at MEC UK

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