Warning, the introduction to this post contains many words in ‘inverted commas’. This denotes I think the words in ‘inverted commas’ are rubbish or being grossly misused.
Market research is a subject that gets me steamed up more than most things should. Not a day goes by when there isn’t a ‘story’ in a ‘newspaper’ about some piece of ‘research’ that proves / disproves some longstanding theory.
My birthday is 23 January (stick it in your diary, I like fizzy booze and bad jokes), which coincides with Blue Monday. You know the one, the day that ‘scientists’ have decided is the most depressing day of the year.
Except it’s not. Blue Monday is horseshit. It was a story that a PR company pulled together to sell more holidays for Sky Travel. But because it sounded true and had a man in a white coat attached to the press release, it became a thing newspapers picked up and now, a few years down the line, it’s an accepted fact.
You’ll see all sorts of examples of this in the news. People with attention spans of less than a goldfish, Britain’s worst burger, the world’s best nail polish, Ireland’s favourite handstand or ‘proof’ that Scotland’s does hip hop better than the rest of the world.
In fact, if you go to an SEO conference, you’ll see lots of presentations around how to pitch your ‘research backed’ PR ideas to newspapers and lots of presentations about EARN BIG LINKS WITH THESE 7 SIMPLE STEPS.
Now, I’m not criticising this approach – it’s brilliant and works well for clients, earning them the big links they need – or the people who explain how to do it. I know many of them and respect the work they do.
I do, however, take issue with some of the ‘research’ that is passed off as fact.
I had a professor at university in Newcastle who will be spitting into his fifth coffee of the morning when he sees people being encouraged to get 100 Google surveys to be passed off as ‘robust research’ and then extrapolating the answers as THE UK’S FAVOURITE [INSERT PRODUCT].
This isn’t research, it’s quackery at best or being an absolute charlatan at worst.
This rather long and ranty preamble is to highlight the state of ‘research’ that floats around the digital marketing world. I wanted to demonstrate what low tide looks like so you can appreciate what the high tide looks like.
That high watermark is produced by Ofcom. In my opinion, the Communications Market Report (CMR) is the best piece of research produced about the digital industry.
Yes, I know it has a different purpose. It isn’t produced for commercial gain and isn’t trying to generate links for a demanding client. But if look at the rigour in the study you will be impressed. And if you can sprinkle just some of this theoretical magic dust on to your digital marketing efforts, you’ll be on to a winner.
So, after bumping into Jonathan Rose, Ofcom’s Director for Northern Ireland, I took the chance to discuss the CMR and a few other issues for Ofcom.
Having worked on several research backed projects for clients over the years (most of them flops), it’s clear that one difference between digital research and proper research is the time afforded to its development.
When I asked Jonathan about the time it takes to pull it together, he said, “much like the joke about painting the Forth Road Bridge, we start on next year’s research report as soon as we publish this year’s!”.
That’s a timeline not given to most digital projects, but a line you can take and show to clients who want “this project live by the end of the week”.
But the CMR is really set apart by the quality of the data sources. Jonathan continues, “the content is a combination of our own market research, alongside industry data and third party research. We have more data than ever before and we want to make sure that it is as accessible and useful to everyone as possible.”
No Google surveys. No Twitter polls. No pseudoscience. Just great data, which they use to tell compelling stories.
Let the Data Tell a Story
Letting the data tell the story is a trick I think that Ofcom pulls off really well. The sheer volume of data they must have access to is mind boggling. The way they boil it down into useful and useable information is incredible. And while I don’t believe they set out to find a newsworthy story, the data always contains one.
Every year I look for the same story in the research – has TV died yet? I’m fond of reading social posts, usually from people under 30, proclaiming the death of TV because they don’t watch it anymore. Which, incidentally, is another area of ‘research’ that gets me steamed up… your viewing habits, and those of your mates, are not indicative of an entire nation [angry face emoji]. Sorry about that.
The place I turn to find out what’s really happening is the CMR – and now also its sibling report, Media Nations – so the facts can do the talking. “TV viewing habits are definitely changing, and it’s clear that younger people are watching less live TV than their parents. What’s also different is the variety of ways in which people can watch content, many of which are online.”
Viewing habits are changing, but not quite as much as some would have you believe. And the change is most profound in younger generations. Rose continues, “there’s a clear challenge for UK broadcasters in competing for kids’ attention. But it’s also clear that children today still value original TV programmes that reflect their lives, and those primetime TV moments which remain integral to family life.”
The change in young people’s viewing habits was the subject of another spectacular report, Why Children Spend Time Online. This one made a major splash in the news when it was launched and has some interesting data – much of it first hand from children – about their viewing habits.
Back to Jonathan, “children have told us in their own words why online content like YouTube and Netflix captures most of their attention. These insights can help inform parents and policymakers as they consider the role of the internet in children’s lives.”
It’s definitely worth checking out.
Moving on, because Ofcom does much more than just create cracking reports. The organisation has two clear priorities, which are:
helping to provide better broadband and mobile coverage, and
promoting fairness for customers.
If, like me, your business runs on your phone and a laptop, or you post video on social media you want people to see, then Ofcom are responsible for making sure the infrastructure is there.
As Jonathan explains, “On broadband, we want to help move the UK decisively away from a 20th century copper network to a modern, full-fibre network fitting for an advanced economy. Naturally, commercial investment in full-fibre will focus on populated areas where the potential return is greatest.
“For areas where the commercial case for full-fibre doesn’t stack up, there is a range of public interventions already in motion. And as a safety net for the very hardest to reach places, there’ll be a broadband universal service obligation in place from next year, giving people guaranteed minimum download and upload speeds.
“On mobile, we’ll be auctioning more spectrum this year [for 5G] and we’re looking at how we can set proportionate coverage obligations that push coverage out across the countryside, and not just populated areas.”
This sort of work is essential, yet often unheralded, for marketers. Without the infrastructure Ofcom helps to roll out, we would be back in 2003, when it took 9 minutes and £12.37 to check the football scores via WAP on a handset that featured in The Matrix.
The push towards better connectivity for everyone, not just cities, is going to be crucial for Northern Ireland – in fact, all of the UK – to remain competitive in business terms (and to keep up to date with the footy scores).
I spent some time in Ennis, County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland last year and was amazed by how fast the internet was. And while waiting outside Euston Station for a train, I visited fast.com and I had download speeds of around 60Mbps to my iPhone, which is about 6 times what I get on my home set up.
These rather dull anecdotes are only to highlight that this world never stands still. If Northern Ireland wants to keep up with the rest of the world, ongoing investment is a necessity.
This isn’t something that’s gone unnoticed at Ofcom. Back to Jonathan, “It’s been clear for a while now that broadband and mobile coverage need to improve to keep pace with people’s expectations. Ofcom, government and the telecoms companies all have important roles to play in making this happen.
“While telecoms policy is normally reserved to Westminster, legislation has allowed Northern Ireland to make public investments in telecoms, which led to us being the first part of the UK to have widespread fibre broadband. There’s £150m currently available to deliver ultrafast broadband as part of the DUP and Conservative’s ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement.”
While this is good news, the bad news hovers worryingly close. The impasse at Stormont, with no sitting executive for [insert ever increasing number] of days threatens to derail the progress. Or, as Jonathan puts it in more diplomatic terms, “It would be a real shame for Northern Ireland if that was hampered by us not having Ministers to take the necessary decisions.”
It’s impossible to pick up a loaf of bread now without someone asking you what you think about Brexit (shambles, as you were asking), so it would be remiss of me not to ask Mr Rose if my TV will stop working or my mobile bill will jump up at the end of March.
With such a tricky subject, especially for someone who heads up an independent regulator, I thought the fairest thing to do would be to include Jonathan’s full answer. So here goes;
“The first thing to say is that Ofcom is politically neutral, and we have no views on the merits or means of Brexit. We have provided independent, expert advice to Government on the areas we regulate throughout the Brexit process and continue to do so. Our commitment to make communications work for everyone guides all our work – and that remains the case regardless of how the UK exits the EU.
“For Northern Ireland, our priority is to help maintain cross-border services such as the availability of Irish TV stations, and tariff-free mobile roaming. The former is subject to existing agreements between the UK and Irish governments, but the latter will be largely up to the mobile operators who may be charged for their customers roaming onto European networks. We’re particularly mindful of protecting people in Northern Ireland from inadvertent roaming.”
It’s fair to say that I’m a fan of Ofcom! I love the work they do and the progress they make that makes my life easier.
Every time you watch a video on your phone, get a better deal on a TV/broadband/phone bundle, marvel at the fact that you’re downloading a film while 19 other people use your wifi or FaceTime a customer in New York, you should probably tip your hat to Ofcom.
The work they do is essential to ensuring we can take advantage of the rapid evolution in tech, for both business and pleasure.
And please, check out the research they produce. It is stunning, in scope and scale and in the quality of the work. They’re even planning on making the data interactive, so you play around with graphs and charts all you like! The next time you use it in a presentation or pitch to clients, tip your hat again to Ofcom.
I don’t think they’d ever ask for that acknowledgement and will probably be blushing just reading my request. I suspect they’re much happier just operating in the background, but they make living and working in the UK much easier for everyone.
And one final hat tip, to Jonathan Rose. I hadn’t seen him for about 7 years until we bumped into each other on a train, then he got his arm twisted to feature in this post. Thanks for your time!