Future of Media: US Survey Reveals Media Channel Lines Continue to Blur

As people buy products, seek information, plan their social lives, and make personal and business decisions, the lines between media channels in the 21st century have become increasingly blurred, according to the third annual U.S. Media Myths & Realities survey.

This melding of media means the content deliverables that were once owned by a specific medium are now found on nearly all platforms – a shift that has helped create an increasingly participatory and fragmented media landscape.

The survey, conducted in late 2008 and released on Monday by Ketchum and the University of Southern California Annenberg Strategic Public Relations Center, revealed, for instance, a steep rise in the use of shopping Web sites among consumers, doubling from 2006 to 2008 (17 percent to 35 percent). More revealing still, about half of those (44 percent) who visit shopping Web sites read consumer reviews and comments found on the site, demonstrating that these sites have transformed into virtual social gathering places and information destinations, rather than merely being a place to purchase goods. Consumers are placing more trust in the experiences of their online peers than they are on the retailer’s product descriptions, which is one example of the broadening definition of a social networking site.

This burgeoning participatory media landscape means media audiences are having just as much influence, if not more, than the content providers themselves.

“If you look at sites like Amazon, for instance, and read through the product reviews, what you’ll find is not only are people posting their thoughts via consumer-generated reviews, but they are also responding to each other’s comments. The effect is the creation of pockets of social networks found all over the Web,” said Nicholas Scibetta, Ketchum partner and director of the agency’s Global Media Network.

“These networks extend beyond consumer-generated reviews on shopping Web sites,” Scibetta said. “Conversations among readers, information seekers, and reviewers can be found on sites from established outlets such as The New York Times and The Huffington Post, to YouTube, to the neighborhood blogger. What we found in this survey is that, with the widespread availability of such conversations, the lines that once separated mediums have now melded.”

The Media Myths & Realities survey, an annual study now in its third year, examines consumer use of more than 40 media channels, ranging from newspapers to podcasts. The Media Myths & Realities research has been conducted by Ketchum in partnership with the USC Annenberg Strategic Public Relations Center since the study’s inception in 2006. This year’s survey shows how media has changed since 2006 in the U.S. Separate surveys were conducted in Brazil, which analyzed changes in Brazilians’ media usage from 2007 to 2008, and, for the first time in 2008, a study was conducted to examine media consumption in the U.K. In 2008, the university partnership has been expanded to include the Bournemouth University Media School for the U.K. study.

“The results of this survey confirm that it’s an exciting time to be a part of media in the 21st century,” said Jerry Swerling, founder and director of the USC Annenberg Strategic Public Relations Center. “It’s a transformative time in which we are seeing outlets move from single-media to multi-media. The ones that adapt most effectively will inevitably win out in this rapidly changing landscape.”

Consumers are using a wider variety of channels than ever before. Newer channels, such as blogs and social networking sites, are gaining more and more traction. The survey found that 26 percent of consumers use social networking sites, compared to 17 percent in 2006. The usage of blogs nearly doubled (24 percent in 2008 compared to 13 percent in 2006).

This is especially true among influential consumers – the 10 to 15 percent of the population who initiate change in their communities – of which 43 percent read blogs by nonjournalists (compared to 16 percent of the general population) and 32 percent read blogs written by journalists (8 percent of the general population).

Conversely, the use of more established media channels continues to wane. The survey revealed that 65 percent of consumers use major network television news as a source of information (down from 71 percent in 2006). Local television news saw a sharper drop – 62 percent in 2008 compared to 74 percent in 2006.

“As we’ve watched traditional mass communications give way to communications controlled by the masses, one of the greatest impacts of newer media formats, such as blogs and news feeds, is that they’ve given people additional channels through which to access established sources,” Swerling said. “All channels can now link with one another, allowing more collaboration and participation than ever. The melding of media is also demonstrated in the actions of legacy media, which are continuing to embrace and implement the principles of new media. Conversely, the journalistic principles that underline news organizations – accuracy, timeliness, objectivity and so forth – will move to other delivery channels. Regardless of where we get our information, we want the source to be credible.”

Search engines are maturing as a medium, becoming a ubiquitous source of information among consumers – from younger generations, to early adopters, to “surfing seniors.” Search is now a daily part of our lives – it is how we gather information.

“The more media melds, the more search engines will continue playing a prominent role in our daily lives,” said Gur Tsabar, Ketchum’s vice president for Interactive Strategies. “That’s why we’re now viewing Google as not just a search engine, but rather as one of the world’s largest publications. In a highly blurred media environment, search engines are consistently proving themselves as one of the most reliable forms of media for the masses.”

The use of search engines has remained steady over the last year – 59 percent of consumers use them regularly (compared to 60 percent in 2007). In addition, consumers awarded search engines a credibility score of 7.0 (on a 10-point scale), which was a step forward from 2007, when they scored 6.5.

Companies that do not have a search strategy are missing a great opportunity to reach consumers quickly and efficiently. In the U.S., 70 percent of influencers use search engines to gather information, which ranks third in a list of most-used sources of information, after local newspapers (74 percent of influencers) and major network television news (72 percent of influencers).

“Consumers expect that search engines will deliver all the relevant information on any given subject, so if a company’s point of view doesn’t turn up in a search result, it will likely be missed by those who aren’t inclined to go directly to a company Web site,” Tsabar noted.

Advice from family and friends is a significant source of information, with 47 percent of U.S. respondents saying they rely on this advice. Furthermore, when it comes to making critical decisions, the survey found consumers routinely turn to family and friends first for information on products and services.

“Knowing that advice from family and friends is perceived as authentic and credible, companies that can effectively tap into a word-of-mouth network in an organic and transparent way can reap great benefits for their brands,” said Scibetta.

In addition, the survey identified key differences in the ways people consume media in the U.S. compared to the U.K. and Brazil. These include that consumers in the U.K. read national newspapers at nearly three times the rate of consumers in the U.S. (53 percent compared to 18 percent). Brazilians are even higher, at 62 percent.

The survey compares the media usage habits of 1,000 adult Americans (including 200 influential citizens, or “influencers” – the 10 to 15 percent of the population who initiate changes in their community or society through a variety of activities) and 500 communications industry professionals.

In the U.K. and Brazil, 300 consumers and 200 influencers were surveyed in each country for a total of 500 consumers. The definition of an influencer was consistent for these countries, allowing for cultural and political differences within each country. The survey did not include communications professionals in these countries.

The survey was conducted through online distribution at various times between Sept. 30 and Oct. 18, 2008.

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