The challenges of media research


Introduction to my chapter on Media Research in the Market Research and Insight Yearbook, published by Kogan Page last year. 

Media owners use research to prove that their media channels work and are good value to their customers, the advertisers. Advertisers rely on research to show that advertising has worked both creatively and in terms of media choice. Both need to understand how people use media and receive messages. This sets the challenge for media research. It must overcome two issues in order to be useful.

First, there are many media channels and people are exposed to many of them either simultaneously (surfing social media on their phone while watching TV) or over time (the newspaper in the morning, the radio in the car, the letter on the doormat when they come home). Research needs to attribute effects correctly to each channel and observe when combined effects are stronger.

Second, people are prone to misattributing the role of advertising in their lives. Primarily they forget or dismiss most of what they are exposed to. What they do recall and remember they often wrongly attribute to what they assume are more dominant media channels. TV often gets the credit that press, posters, online and direct mail in part deserve[1].

The growth of both ‘traditional’ media (more TV channels, DAB radio, free papers) and ‘new’ media (news brands online, social media, online advertising, etc.) has created ever greater fragmentation. This only makes the task of market research harder. While some new media have metrics ‘baked-in’ such as the measure of clicks, views, likes, tweets etc., this can create a misattribution of its own where the easy to measure, but less effective, is favoured over the hard-to-measure but more effective[2].

New Techniques for Media Research

Media research will always rely in part on people’s recall of advertising. This remains a quick and cheap way of roughly measuring success. However, in recent years, approaches based on academic advances in neuroscience and Behavioural Economics have both helped move beyond this reliance on recall, and can help solve the problems of misattribution.

Techniques adopted from neuroscience and biometrics mean we can now say with confidence which messages are likely to form lasting memories and go on to influence future behaviour. Behavioural Economics has inspired experiments which isolate the underlying influences on behaviour, providing clear evidence of what participants are unable to attribute or struggle to recall. This methodological precision is made possible by advances in recording technologies that make ethnography, self-ethnography and observervation cheaper and less intrusive.

Case Studies

The two case studies outlined in this chapter both use innovations in methodology driven by neuroscience and Behavioural Economics to solve the problem of advertising misattribution – a core issue for advertising mail. The cases describe how Trinity McQueen worked with Royal Mail MarketReach (the part of Royal Mail that supports advertisers’ use of mail) to understand how mail, leaflets and catalogues work as advertising media.

The first case study shows how we used CCTV & ethnography to evidence what actually happens to mail in the home: where it goes, how long it lives and what it is used for. We have highlighted several learnings for qualitative research design, particularly when leveraging technology.

The second case study shows how we combined a controlled experiment and neuroscience to evidence the impact of the medium on the message. The quality of paper shouldn’t affect the desire to read something, but it does. We have highlighted several learnings for behavioural research design.


[1] The TV advertising industry body thinkbox commissioned econometric modelling to examine the direct and indirect effects of different media:

[1] Les Binet and Sarah Carter provide a detailed analysis of the issues in the WARC blog entitled Attribution Fraud:

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Books, Marketing Research, Methods, Neuroscience. Bookmark the permalink.

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