<%@ Language=VBScript %> <% CheckState() CheckSub() %> Interacting with new media: beyond technology
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Nov 1998

Interacting with new media: beyond technology

Karen Enver, Maher Bird Associates, debates the gulf between new media and consumers from the agency's viewpoint

Karen Enver

Technology succeeds when it finds a natural fit with human needs and wants. A lot of new technology is driving what habitually gets called new media, for example the World Wide Web, digital TV, CD-ROM, interactive kiosks.

However, there is little understanding about how people value, consume and interact with these media. Knowledge of psychological and behavioural attitudes is needed to instruct and aid effective uses of these media for commercial purposes by advertisers. Consider the microwave oven for example. It was not so long ago that we, as consumers, were tantalised by the possibility of cooking whole five-course dinners by microwave oven. This did not happen. Instead, microwaves are used for heating drinks and cooking ready meals, demonstrating the human dimension – consumers using a technology which meets their needs, not those of a technologist.

Media and how we value channels

Ducoffe1 and Ducoffe and Larkin2 discuss the findings of a study they conducted into how people value various communication channels, new and old, as a source of advertising and how people value these media themselves. Not surprisingly, TV and print were, respectively, considered the most entertaining or informative. Less surprisingly, the Web came sixth out of seven media channels (just above outdoor) in a ranking of usefulness to consumers.

The authors conclude that perceptions were driven by the content and form of surrounding material as much as the commercial messages themselves and in the case of the Web, an inability as yet to involve users in a way they value.

We understand the value of 'traditional' media because we have used them all our lives. Newspapers are portable and have adapted to the competition from other news-breaking media by providing more magazine-type editorial. (Commentators have even described them as 'mental candy'.)

TV has been so predominant in most of our lives that perhaps little more needs to be said. However, another US study3 explored fairly exhaustively how we use and regard TV, in order to assess the prospects of an interactive future promised by new media. TV enables viewers to engage at different levels, from dipping in and out like radio, to destination viewing; to share a sense of communal validation (for example, following Tiffany and Grant's antics in EastEnders or the England/Argentina game); and to immerse themselves in the storyteller's art (for example, Cracker or Inspector Morse). Overall, TV has created a medium which has hugely influenced the way in which advertising and commercial communication has evolved.

The value placed on new media

Advertisers are looking increasingly at new ways of cutting their media budgets in an effort to improve return on communication investment. In the hyper-competitive and increasingly commoditised world we live in, brand marketers are trying to find new ways of building relationships and protecting them from encroachment. An interactive, one-to-one future seems assured by new media. But is it what consumers really want and is it capable of delivering this?

A combination of peer group pressure, apparently cheaper entry costs and the promise of data capture has led many to try Web sites without the stringent criteria more routinely applied to advertising. For example: what message is taken out; do people like our message and tone of voice; what is our share of voice; have we differentiated ourselves from our competitors; are we providing enough brand information; what brand values are we creating with our messages; what precisely is the nature of the response we are seeking; can we track this and measure competitive effect; or are we really just creating a glorified brochure and hoping people will think this is interactivity?

Underlying this is a lack of appreciation of the motivations, unconscious perceptions and emotional drivers of using new media. In short, how is the new medium the message?

Experiences and expectations of new media

In association with the Marketing Forum, Maher Bird Associates set out to explore more of the nature of the experience of using new and old media, and trawled the views of business practitioners. We also conducted an experiment with consumers in order to understand the dimensions which will help marketers use communication channels more appropriately. (While digital TV barely exists, some inferences can be drawn for its potential.)

The business world seems to have mixed feelings. UK sentiment seems to be disappointed by the the Internet. 'The bottom line is, it's not info at your fingertips – it takes ages', as Avi Shankar, a lecturer at Bristol Business School, put it. Lucinda Craig of research agency Elucidation also refers to this: 'Isn't it easier to phone at the end of the day?' Sites that take too long to download or crash in the process do not endear themselves to users, assuming they know where to look for them in the first place.

Internet delivery may well be superseded by digital versions which take away the 'nerd' aspects of surfing. As Bart Sayle of Breakthrough points out: 'the keyboard will disappear, you'll be able to access the Web on your TV' (in the us you already can with WebTV). The real question might be how the creative impact of TV production values can be incorporated to provide a stimulating and branded experience for the surfer, and how TV viewing habits will change as a result of the explosion in bandwidth promised by digital.

Even Microsoft Network, who are the providers of WebTV, have to admit that, as Tom Bowman points out: 'New media won’t replace old media. Nothing will change the fact the people will still want to bury themselves in a newspaper when they’re on a train.' For Bowman, the excitement comes from the potential convergence of technologies. When it becomes possible to watch a programme and access a Web site at will in a corner of the TV screen, with relevant information, the world of new media can stop taxiing down the runway and take off.

A reality check

Our consumer experiment, which should be thought of as a pilot for what could be a much more robust and rewarding audit, set three experimenters a task: to research and choose a holiday for a fictitious couple, Wendy and Graham. They were given a profile of the couple, a budget, a camcorder to make a video diary and a paper diary. They were also given a mission. They could use only one method each – old media (newspapers and magazines), the Web or the High Street. They then came back together to discuss and share the highs and lows in a focus group.

Broadly, newspapers and magazines provided an inspirational editorial route, the Internet delivered access and convenience, while the High Street could have (but failed) to offer a more personal service and insider knowledge – true interactivity perhaps. No route was judged an outright winner or loser, but the ability to do background investigation via the Internet followed up by more detailed face-to-face advice was expressed as the ideal.

Interestingly, given the virtues claimed for it, the Internet suffered from being 'one-dimensional' and 'not interactive', by which our researcher meant that her needs for information were not being met, even if the advertisers' were! She could not get answers to the questions she had, despite the trouble the advertiser had gone to to provide an informational service. Our interpretation would be that in order for sites to be truly interactive (and not too cumbersome to download), the true cost of setting up and maintaining a topical, involving Web site is underestimated at present.

In addition, our Web experimenter referred to the difficulty of knowing where to start. The time taken to access data and the lack of a signalled start point (for example an index) meant that she opted to hunt out brands she knew. Her search was therefore aided by brand values created elsewhere.

An experimental study by Muylle, Moenart and Despontin4 investigated this behaviour in order to provide guidelines for communicators to incorporate into Web site design. By videoing Net users in the course of searching, then playing back the tape and interviewing participants for additional insights and observations, they were able to describe four characteristic search behaviours which may help to explain satisfaction and expectations and provide better guidelines for designing sites (Exhibit 1).





Exploratory surfers Low Low
Willow surfers Medium Low
Bounded navigators High Low
Targeted navigators High Low
Purpose: the extent to which the search boundaries
Specificity: within the boundaries, the amount and type of discernible search goals in mind
Source: Muylle, Moenart and Despontin

Extrapolating the findings of this research suggests that the architecture of, and signage to, commercial Web sites needs to evolve. It would benefit from better understanding of a searcher's characteristic search behaviour and whether this is an individual (and demographic) trait or more linked to the type of information sought. In other words, we should not assume that all searches are the same: looking up the Starr findings on Clinton is not the same as browsing for a luxury holiday or picking out a reliable pension or DIY stockbroker.

Trust no one

The Internet is still too young to have established its credentials, which may hamper its transactional role. This is reflected in the fact that, despite no evidence of fraud, purchase by credit card is still low (12% of Web users in the UK, Internet Trak, Q1 98). This is largely because of concerns about security – 80% cited lack of trust in the same survey. The advent of major retailer online ordering may of course change this comfort zone, as may an industry-sponsored protection scheme (compare Bank guarantee cards and MOPS – Mail Order Protection Scheme – run by the press). The more acute issue is whether brands new to the market place or the Web will have the credentials to transact online without heavy investment in consumer protection and the brand advertising available in traditional, 'trusted' media.

Beyond the Internet – a digital future?

Some commentators seem determined to write off the prospects of digital, as if there were a choice. It is true that endless re-runs of current programming are unlikely to cultivate much of a following. However, it is the potential for interactive services, easier access to Web sites and the Internet, more specialist programming and the prospects for new forms of commercial messaging which are of interest to advertisers in the form of advertiser-funded programming, 'infomercials' or advertiser channels. In the US the experience of cable suggests that demand can be created for niche programming. One channel in New Mexico exists solely for estate agents to advertise houses for sale, with full virtual viewings and sales pitches for the viewer from the comfort of an armchair.

Our business practitioners' view was that convergence would occur between information-based services like Teletext and the Internet and more entertainment or news-driven media like television. The Microsoft Network experience has been that take-up of Web TV has been substantial and tapped into a new audience, not previously owners or users of computers. Once the technical aspects of using a computer-based service are made easy, there is acceptance and interest in using the Internet as a service. It is this mass audience who may then make home banking and the virtual shopping mall viable. Where this will leave PC versions of the Web is unclear.

The bigger question will be what happens to 'community of experience' and the validation of shared television schedules when 'me-TV' starts. This provides the opportunity for individuals to download and watch programmes and movies to their own timetable. This may well make the accurate targeting and measurement of audiences impossible.

A step change in media consumption

As Bill Gates himself has said, consumers never move as fast as technology. And we can perhaps add that few of us use anything more than a fraction of a technology's capability. Instead we use what we find easy, or useful, or rewarding. Many models of media use and advertising effect have been expounded, as will many more. To say that media in this new era will be two-way seems facile – successful media use has always generated interaction. More at stake may be our model of how product and brand awareness, propensity to purchase and brand values are driven. The very concept of branding may be about to undergo an evolutionary jump. It will be necessary to understand this new climate to survive the information overload and clutter, which is already a factor: people are already wanting to sift out unwanted commercial messages.

Those in direct marketing or new media sometimes claim a one-to-one future is theirs. But, on the preliminary small-scale evidence of our experimenters and business practitioners, these presumptions will be challenged. Top-of-mind awareness – fame, by any other name – is still, possibly more, important, as are values which make people trust or aspire to a brand name and choose to interact with it in cyberspace. Credibility and involvement provided by new media will be a major requirement in their development – the validation of shared experience will be for the survival and reinvention of traditional media (Exhibit 2).

Questions for communicators in a new era

How will people find us?

Simplistically, traditional media have the ability to provide material people can discover at random – new media work best on the principle of people retrieving what they want. A readiness to look for an understanding of how people search would better aid the use of banners or hypertext for surfers – though 'miners' might be a more accurate term. Increasingly, people will have many more points of access to brand communication, and we cannot presume a linear stream of awareness.

How do we test new media content in the way we do old?

If advertising campaigns are pre-tested and revised and alternatives sought, shouldn’t Web sites (or digital communication) be? While no one could assert that pre-testing advertising is always reliable or successful, it has improved our overall ability to construct and tailor messages for target audiences. Better consumer insight into needs and wants of new media content may be vital to ensure it is genuinely engaging, interactive and repeatable.

How do we evaluate the effectiveness of new media?

Are we doing enough to test not only hits or clickthrough as an approximation of audience delivery (which is about as helpful as a TV rating), but also the message and brand communication, competitive effect and the reasons users do not purchase, revisit or wish to interact with the Web site? Further, do we know if our result is due to our site or competitive activity?

Is the potential of new media about one-to-one or mass marketing?

Perhaps we are deluding ourselves that we can provide genuine one-to-one marketing, since the cost and scale of truly customised marketing is arguably beyond the budgets of most companies. Better segmented marketing and improved delivery or faster reaction to customer desires might be a more realistic objective.

Should we tailor messages and treatments for new/old media?

If we understand the nature of consumer interaction with new and old media delivery, if we could define the mindset, we might construct more effective communication plans. It will not be sufficient as more and more advertisers adopt new media and more consumers come on board to provide a glorified electronic brochure, complete with the technological equivalent of a pop-up page. If it is easier for consumers to ring a number in a newspaper and talk directly to an expert, this might be a better return on the customer’s – and advertiser’s – investment.

Do we understand the need for credibility and enjoyment where new media content is concerned?

The unconscious role the medium itself plays in our perception of message – content and form – is not well understood when considering new media, though we take it for granted with traditional media. This might explain why, though the novelty of using some new media is attractive, the quality of the interaction, its impact and role in tying people into a brand experience is less guaranteed. Many Web sites, constrained by the technology, look worryingly similar in tone and style. How can and should we be differentiating new media content more assiduously, in a way that is more commonplace (if not always successful) with traditional media?

How should we cater for multiple message paths?

Assuming that in the not-too-distant future we have video and TV on demand, Web access and interactive services, even computer games, all in a living room near you – how do we reach people effectively when we can no longer guarantee their presence in a specified period of time? Though costs per thousand may drop, lengths of activity required to build reach and frequency may increase. Do advertisers have to be omnipresent or, by understanding the media interface with the consumer, can channels be used differently? We have said that the challenge will be reaching consumers with parallel communication paths, rather than the relatively linear one we enjoy at present. How can we understand and construct better content to fit this new paradigm (Exhibit 3)?


'Old World'

'New World'

Discovering Retrieving
Random Pre-selected
Impact Control
Cognitive Affective
Communal Personal

Our contention would be that the best aspects of new and old media will fuse to provide advertisers with greater choice, flexibility and ultimately effectiveness as defined by hard sales. But this can happen only if advertisers, their agencies and new media owners are prepared to subject emerging media forms to the same scrutiny as they have older forms and ask more intelligent questions about consumer perceptions of them. Maher Bird Associates intends to investigate this area more widely with leading clients and research practitioners in a seminal and objective study this winter.


  1. R. Ducoffe: 'How consumers assess the value of advertising', Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, Vol 17, No 1, 1995.
  2. Ducoffe & Larkin: 'Advertising value and advertising on the Web', Journal of Advertising Research, Sept/Oct 1996.
  3. Lee & Lee: 'How and why people watch TV: implications for the future of interactive television', Journal of Advertising Research, Nov/Dec 1995.
  4. Muyelle, Moenart & Despontin: 'World Wide Web search behaviour', Proceedings of the 1998 conference, Global Institute for Corporate and Marketing Communication, Strathclyde Business School.

This article is based on a paper given at the Marketing Forum on the Oriana, September 1998.

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