Understanding Shopper Media

The title of this post is meant as an homage to media sage Marshall McLuhan, whom I admire greatly as a thought leader regarding the impact of television, radio, print and film on the collective culture and consciousness of our society. I had the very good fortune to learn about the maestro’s work at the knee of his protege the late Dr. Neil Postman, professor of Media Ecology at New York University, when I studied there in the early 1980’s. I would encourage readers to look up books by both these great scholars. One can only imagine what they would have to say about the present state of blogging, text-messaging, and in-store digital media.

Their work has certainly influenced my own attempts to understand retail marketing and merchandising. In the early 1990’s, while working as managing editor of BrandMarketing magazine, I penned: “The retail store is a communications environment for brand messages.” This statement I believe captures the modern shopping experience at several levels, and it may help us confront and make sense of the incredible complex of messaging that takes flight at shoppers between the electric doors and the point-of-sale terminals every day.

Start by visualizing the 30,000 package labels in a modest sized supermarket – many of these multiplied by two, 10 or more facings into section and category tableaus. Add to those the shelf-talkers, aisle signs, price labels, floor graphics, coupon dispensers, shopping cart signs, and product displays that decorate stores and you begin to form a picture of the imposing gauntlet of competing attempts at persuasion that shoppers confront and navigate on a daily basis.

And that’s just the visual, static communications. Lighting, fixture design, even environmental systems all convey implicit and explicit messages aimed at influencing shopper behavior. Sales people cannot be overlooked as messengers of persuasion. Modern retail environments are also rife with electronic media of various stripes – from in-store audio and radio (“Attention Kmart shoppers…!) to a variety of interactive kiosks, and most interestingly of late, to networked video screens that display full-motion service and advertising content. These are often referred to as “in-store digital signage” because the folks that make the hardware (screens, switches, network gear) and software (media asset management systems) imposed their terminology on the emerging industry.

Two major influencers in the digital media trend, Walmart Stores and its supplier PRN Networks, originally dubbed their network, “Wal-Mart TV” – a metaphor that stuck, because after all, television monitors were used to display the content, and commercial time was sold to fund it. It seemed at first to mirror the classic advertising model favored by the television industry – audience reach, delivery frequency and wrap-around content. But don’t let the rectangular, glowing screen deceive you:

This is not TV! Any more than the rectangular glowing screen on your computer is TV; or the rectangular glowing screen on your cell phone; or the giant rectangular glowing screens on the strip in Vegas; or the rectangular glowing screen on the dashboard of your car that tells you what direction to go next. These are all video monitors, but what they are, in essence, is determined not by their form factor but by the communications environments in which they are viewed.

Let that sink in a bit. What I’m proposing here is that the observer’s context and mindset are what define the media experience. It’s about where the viewer is when they confront the screen (living room sofa, desk, auto, store, street, transit hub, etc.) It’s about what they are doing and what objectives they are pursuing while they view the screen. It’s about how the viewer feels before they confront the screen, how they feel viewing the screen, and how they feel after they view it. It’s about what they do after they view the screen, what they remember about the experience and the enduring feelings they carry with them for minutes, days or years afterwards.

So the retailers, advertisers and marketers who are today struggling to press in-store media into the classic advertiser mold of reach, frequency, cost-per-thousand (CPM) and gross rating points (GRPs) are barely confronting the scope of the challenge before them. The in-store media measurement models we are newly hearing about don’t begin to tackle the really big issues that come along with the revolution in Shopper Media. What does the shopper see? What does she feel about it? What does he do about it? What do they do and feel about it later?

These questions impose a new discipline upon us, like it or not. It’s time to get busy on the basic shopper behavior and attitude marketing research that begins to shed some light on how people confront persuasive messaging in the retail environment. Only armed with this data will we be able to make reliable inferences about the value we assign to a delivered message. Counting “opportunities to see” is simply too crude for this complex, multi-shaded media environment.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this topic going forward. For the time being, let’s pause and consider how little we understand so far about digital media and the shopper experience – and how much of an opportunity lies before us.

© Copyright 2008 James Tenser

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