MediaPost Media Magazine

by Joe Mandese

Most mornings Dave Ferguson wakes hours before daylight and eats “first breakfast,” the meal that starts the Midwestern farmer’s day, before he begins tending livestock, mending fences, and toiling in the fields. Then he cleans up, puts on his city duds, consumes a second breakfast, and drives through the cornfields and soybean patches of rural Indiana to Muncie, where his thoughts shift from agricultural farms to server farms.Ferguson is director of one of the nation’s most enterprising, but probably least-known media labs – the Center for Media Design at Ball State University (BSU).

You wouldn’t know it to look at the campus, which, with the exception of new building construction looks like any other university in middle America: Green lawns stretch up to limestone buildings and undergrads pedal around campus on bicycles. But behind the bucolic exterior are some of the most leading-edge media technologies and advanced thinking on the current and future state of media.

In fact, digital data packets fly invisibly back-and-forth across the campus’ miles-wide radius in what is believed to be the first WI-FI network of its kind. It’s powerful enough to deliver 50 megabytes per second of wireless bandwidth to every home in Muncie, a town with a population of about 67,000, and an area covering 24 square miles. But with the exception of the university’s students and faculty, and a small number of homes participating in the school’s research projects, the locals aren’t accessing it. And that’s just the way Ferguson wants it.

“The rest of the community is still very pure,” he boasts. By “pure,” Ferguson means the people of Muncie are not the kind of early adopters to digital media likely to be found in big cities, especially on the media-centric coasts.

One of the things Ferguson’s team does is observe how technology and design affect the way people use media. If you want to see how these factors affect the lives of average Americans, Ferguson says, you have to go where average Americans live. Not to digital media meccas like New York, Los Angeles, or Boston, but to a place that might be called Middletown. Actually, Middletown is what BSU researchers call Muncie, as well as a nearly century-long series of studies on how media have affected people living in the community.

It was an update to the so-called Middletown Media Studies two years ago that raised eyebrows in Madison Avenue media circles. First conducted in 1929, the studies are unique because they use real people to directly observe how consumers use media. There is none of the bias associated with measurement methodologies like meters, diaries, mail, and telephone surveys, which tend to exaggerate some media usage behavior, while failing to detect others altogether.

What the most recent studies found is that people consume much more of every medium, in more combinations, than any of the ad industry’s best research has ever detected. An eye-opener for many in the ad business, the study also sparked criticism that as powerful as its direct observation was, the study’s sample – 100 people – wasn’t enough to meet Madison Avenue’s statistical standards.

The Center for Media Design is fixing that. Researchers went back into the field this summer to conduct an even more ambitious version of the study, increasing the sample four-fold, and drawing nearly half of it from nearby Indianapolis. Instead of taking notes on clipboards and legal pads, the field researchers were equipped with handheld computers. The results will be revealed later this month in New York at Media’s Forecast 2006 Conference, and Mike Bloxham, director of testing and assessment at the center, promises there will be some surprises, especially when it comes to findings on the simultaneous use of media.

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