Research Goose Chases

Back in the early days of the Internet, a favorite form of research study was the presentation of the question, “For what purpose would you like to use the Internet?” It was a whole lot easier to get an answer to that query than to ask people what they actually did online — most didn’t know what the heck the Internet was, never mind have access to it.

Considering the respondents’ lack of actual experience, it’s not very surprising that the research returned results that were exactly the opposite of reality. Surveys showed the Internet was first going to be used for education, distance medicine, and research, and then eventually things such as gaming, communications, and pornography. We all know what really happened.

When hundreds of companies rushed to provide education services and distance medicine applications in the early days of the Internet, they found that the market had lied to them. People didn’t beat down the doors to pay money to learn things online. The pornographers were the first to make profits. Communications companies came next, followed by the gamers.

Time after time, I’ve had to show clients why they shouldn’t pose questions about technology use to people who aren’t already using the technology. The answers are almost always deceiving. I remember working with Sprint to conduct these types of studies in 1995 to help determine what should be on its Web site. We developed bulletin boards, chat functions, and all sorts of other applications, eventually discovering that these “heavily desired” features weren’t so heavily desired once the site visitors could actually experience them.

But this hasn’t stopped us from repeatedly asking these types of questions. The most recent example was perpetrated by my former colleagues at I/PRO (where I worked from 1997 to 1999). They just published a study asking media people why they don’t use online media. The result: Yet another drumbeat in the call for better online measurement.

But that got me to thinking: If these are the ones clamoring for better measurement, then just how real are these desires?

I dug a little deeper into the I/PRO study and discovered that, of all the people surveyed, only about 25 percent thought online media could be more than moderately successful in reaching their target audiences. In comparison, 75 percent of them thought TV could be “very” or “extremely” effective in reaching that same target.

These aren’t the foot soldiers of online evangelism. And that’s fine, presuming that they have some experience from which to draw their conclusions. But only 75 percent of the sample had any experience at all with online.

Of those, 59 percent think the most important consideration in site selection is number of unique users. Now the picture comes closer into focus. These are people who wouldn’t know a targeting mechanism if it came into their offices and swallowed their TV ADDY awards.

They even believe that media such as radio and television generally provide a better return on investment (ROI) than online media.

Knowing the consistent integrity of the I/PRO folks, I’m certain the study accurately reflects the opinions of the media executives, but now I question the advisability of believing the predictive conclusion: that better measurement will bring more spending to online media.

At no point will a recalcitrant traditional media advertiser say, “Oh, now I see that online measurement has moved from being 350 percent superior to traditional media to being 425 percent superior. Let’s start spending money online.”

They’ll continue to find excuses not to spend money in a medium in which they receive less status and profit. I believe the only answer to the predicament is to beat them in the marketplace. The carrot proved ineffective, but the stick is implacable.

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