I used to think that having a conceptualized view of how things work, a mental model, was a good thing but the following definitions from Wikipedia made me think twice.
A mental model is…a representation of the surrounding world…and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models are fundamental…to…organizational learning. (they are) “deeply held images of thinking and acting.” … so basic to understanding of the world that people are hardly conscious of them.
Theories are collections of hypotheses that are logically linked together into a coherent explanation of some aspect of reality and which have individually or jointly received some empirical support.
Contrasting these definitions, I realized that mental models are often never put to the test. Marketers often don’t think through what data would support or deny or reshape their beliefs. Mental models contain marketing beliefs that, if structured enough to be tested against data, could prove to be incredibly wrong and lead to disastrous decisions. They might be mythical sea monsters rather than sea changes.
One of the biggest sea monsters of the 2000s has been the predicted demise of TV advertising. The story goes like this: half or more time-shift on their DVRs, Millenials are all watching video on their computers and smart devices and no one wants to be interrupted by TV advertising. The mental model continues that social media and owned media will replace traditional advertising because it is sought out.
Nothing could be further from the truth when examined against data. Far from being a dying medium as Forrester, Bob Garfield, and the socialnomics guy Erik Qualman have predicted, the long term trend of minutes spent watching TV is UP and TV ad revenues are quite healthy. Compared to Facebook, the 800 pound gorilla of the internet, TV still commands nearly 20 times as many viewing minutes according to Nielsen data. The predicted demise of TV is not a sea change, it is a sea monster.
On the other hand, the prediction about the disruption of print media and how it must become digital is certainly a true sea change for print media publishers.
Dr. Jack Wakshlag, the Chief Research Officer at Turner Broadcasting, shared some tidbits with me that prove the value of putting beliefs to the test of empirical evidence.
Fact or fiction: DVRs have proven to be a major disruption to ad supported television in the U.S.
Truth: Over 90% of TV viewing is live and not timeshifted in any way. (It is true that many timeshift but they do it for a small percent of TV viewing minutes.)
Fact or fiction: Television Cord Cutters are young, affluent and tech savvy consumers.
Truth: Cord Cutters Are: More Rural, Lower Income, Younger, Non High Tech, Renters
Hard data 2…mental models 0.
At a recent audience measurement conference, we heard a priori arguments and weak survey data suggest that tablets offer a great threat to TV. This is a variant of the “TV is dying” mental model. It would be easy to turn this into a testable hypothesis. You would need to measure and track the following:
- Percent who have a tablet
- Number of minutes/day using the tablet
- Percent of time spent on the tablet that replaces TV viewing.
If you did the math, today tablets account for less than 5% of the media consumption time that TV accounts for. Furthermore, tablets are substitutes much more for laptops than for TVs. In fact, they are probably a friend to TV as they can enhance the experience by making it interactive and social (a hypothesis on my part, but one that is testable.)
The trick in separating sea changes from sea monsters is to turn the mental model into a theory comprised of measurable hypotheses. I am currently working on this for clients regarding social media and owned media. Specifically regarding Facebook, a paper I am co-authoring based on hard evidence of the value of liking for brands will be presented Thursday at Wharton at the Empirical Generalizations conference. Another important area to test would be mobile. I suspect mobile creates true sea change for brands, but let’s find out with hard data and experiments, shall we?