Follow Sir Topham Hat's rule: be useful.
Among the big stories of last week (notably the seemingly pointless deal between Microsoft and Yahoo), was the release of a Forrester Research report on American's media consumption times. The study, conducted with 40,000 Americans, asks people to report back on the amount of time they spent with different media channels: radio, print, television, and Internet. For the first time since 2004, the amount of time people spend using the Internet did not shoot up dramatically. In fact, it slightly dropped, leading many observers to conclude that we may have hit an equilibrium point with the Internet in daily life.
Consider the nature of this question. The study is asking people simply for a raw number of hours per day that they devote to using a particular device for content. There are only 24 hours in a day and most of us are either commuting, eating or sleeping during a good chunk of those hours (i.e., not consuming any media); the amount of time spent with media can't go up infinitely. Time may be grabbed from some of those other activities, and we've certainly see cases where people shift their news-consumption time away from print and toward television and the Internet. But we need to remember that a new device or a new channel can't introduce new time into the day. It simply must compete for the available hours.
For advertisers, this is one key question; the other is to what degree to consumers rely upon a particular channel. Time spent with newspapers is low and getting lower, but there is a core group of readers who absolutely rely upon that paper and refuse to let the medium hit zero. So, the question I'd like to know is not only how many hours do you spend using the Internet, but how much do you care about those hours?
It's All About "Using"
If you look at the chart from Forrester, you see a peculiar thing in the headings of the data. The question asked was, "In a typical week, how many hours do you spend doing each of the following?" and the bars are noted "Watching TV", "Using the Internet", "Listening to the radio", "Reading the newspaper", and "Reading magazines" (those last three also have the qualifier "not online").
If we want to take a guess at how valuable the time is spent with the medium, I think those verbs -- watch, use, listen, and read -- are the key. The Internet is the only medium that we "use" (except for swatting a fly. Print publications are great for swatting flies in ways that Web sites can never be). If I were a careful survey taker, I would be able to consider all sorts of online activities into the category of "using the Internet," from getting my e-mail to chatting to buying airline tickets, to writing down my thoughts to watching "The Office."
The Internet is useful. It is not a place where we watch, listen or read, even if that is what we seem to doing. What I mean is that, even if you are reading something online (this column, for example), the experience and the content are fully surrounded by tools that allow you to make use of it. There are buttons to save or forward the content. You can search it, reblog it, and comment on it. In some cases, you can extract bits and remix them. We offer up things online not just to be consumed but to be used.
The Topham Hat Rule: Be Useful
My kids are big fans of Thomas the Tank Engine, a set of stories (and toys, books, games, magazines, ice shows, and who knows what else) about a group of trains with faces. The man who runs the rail yard is Sir Topham Hat who is always imploring his engines to be "useful." In fact, the highest compliment that you seem to be able to get in the Thomas stories is that you are a "very useful engine."
We must apply this same logic and approach to interactive marketing and advertising. You have to make sure that you communicate your message. At the same time, you must provide something worthwhile, because, simply, people want to use the Internet, not simply view it. If you want to advertise in cinemas, you have to take advantage of the big screen and the surround sound to be impactful and memorable. If you want to be successful online, you must take advantage of the fact that you are marketing on a medium that people see as a tool, and they anticipate getting value out of.
This is why the time spent on the Internet is most often seen as highly valuable to a viewer. People increasingly feel that their Internet connection is the single most important content delivery channel they have. You can leverage that, simply by remembering to always try to be a very useful engine.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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