by Mike Bloxham
As a general rule, we like to think of ourselves as individuals who make our own choices and decisions. Sure, we’re informed by the factors around us, but, ultimately, we’re independent of them. Mavericks, if you will. The reality, of course, is far less simple. Many of our choices are heavily influenced – if not predetermined – by what we have been exposed to throughout our lives by family, friends and others around us. Leaving aside for now that, by definition, we can’t all be mavericks, just how maverick can we be?
Extend this question to our media choices, and I can’t help but wonder how much of our media behavior is self-determined, how much our peers influence and how much is basically inherited. The concept of hand-me-down media surely must have some mileage.
After all, when we think about some of the strongest, most credible and longest lasting media brands around, very often we realize we encountered them as children as a result of our parents’ choice of media.
Newspapers are an obvious example. Many generations of families have loyally read The New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and so on. Even now, as younger readership of the printed product is declining, can it be said that these loyal generations of families are not so much abandoning the brand as just the printed product? Do younger members of longtime New York Times families look first and instinctively to nytimes.com?
Regarding television, stronger news brands like CNN and Fox likely also benefit from the same effect. There undoubtedly exist CNN households and Fox households, but not too many where followers of both cohabit. In the case of news, this often also links to a political standpoint reflected by the news channel of choice. For networks, choice and continued consumption is often driven by the familiarity of a particular news anchor (hence the spasms when faces change).
As each of our inherited media morphs onto emerging media platforms, there are opportunities to leverage pre-existing relationships to carry an audience along. Inevitably, there also exist new challenges in retaining them. The ease with which competitors can be accessed in interactive media is far greater than in noninteractive media. Relevant innovation must meet and exceed user expectations of a brand.
The DNA of our media selves encounters, as with real DNA, mutations. In media terms, these can be seen as the rise of social networks, search engines, mobile devices and devices that wield the potential to impact behavior in new ways – ways that disrupt and overturn the status quo of the media business.
It’s too early to say whether this notion of media inheritance will apply to, say, social networking. Many first-generation users of Facebook dread their parents using the network. But what if Facebook continues to evolve into a truly mass medium, and people of all types and ages use it as a straightforward means of communication? Will there be Facebook households versus MySpace or LinkedIn households? After all, if I encourage my son to set up his Facebook page and he knows that I already use it, his attitude toward his dad being on there will be very different from that of those early adopters.
Of course, it’s possible that the ever-accelerating rate of change in media will see the erosion of parental influence on lifelong media choice. As more new media forms come into being, perhaps generational shifts in media behavior will become greater, thereby weakening consistencies in intergenerational behavior.
I suspect the glue that holds it together will be the strength of the media brands. Nowhere is this more evident than the news business, where print is in angst-ridden turmoil. TV is, at worst, holding its own and, at best, riding high on the election. Both are innovating in emerging media while linking back to their core properties.
As far as I’m aware, there is little or no research on intergenerational use of media brands. If we had it, maybe we would better understand the importance of long-term parental influence and be able to leverage it.