50 shades of like
We are losing our faith in TV news as fast as those high-speed chases it’s so happy to show us. At the same time, we’re driving like maniacs on the social-media highway, letting it all hang out with the top down.
What do they have to do with each other? Both are advertiser-supported media. One prints money, the other not so much, at least not yet. And yet one is on the downswing, the other ascendant. What does this say about human nature and tapping into elusive and guilty pleasures?
In its annual poll, Gallup Politics found that only 21 percent of respondents expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in TV news – less than half what it was when the poll was first conducted in 1993, but down only a point from last year.
But then this report, from RTDNA and Hofstra: TV news hiring is up – way up:
The survey found that TV news added 1,131 jobs in 2011 to reach a total full-time employment tally of 27,653, representing a 4.3% gain over the previous year. (The highest level of TV news staffing occurred in 2000).
42.9% of stations reported that they increased staff in 2011 and 46.2% said that staff size stayed the same. Fox-affiliates were more likely than any other group to increase staff size, and stations in the South were more likely to have added employees than stations in other regions.
We mistrust TV news, yet ratings and thus job numbers are improving. What’s going on here?
The answer lies in a well-documented disconnect: We are careful about what we say we like. Sometimes it’s to be polite. Sometimes we withhold our public displays of affection to conceal a guilty pleasure. Sometimes we have no idea, but need to say something.
Anecdotally, TV news has a terrible reputation. Nobody admits to watching it, and yet the average station has five to six hours of news division programming every day – not counting the quasi-news network programs that have grown from two hours in the morning to as many as four.
TV news is a guilty pleasure, and its economic viability in the age of “free” Internet news would seem to make zero sense. The fact that it not only persists but increasingly thrives while being denigrated by its audience is significant, and informs how social networks can and can’t work.
Which gets us back to the disconnect between liking something and saying you like something. Just as we say we don’t think much of TV news and nevertheless watch a lot of it, social networks encourage endorsements – liking, friending, etc. But left to your own devices you only reveal what embellishes your self-image, consciously or not. How does anyone really know what you believe, when even you might not know for sure? As social networks try to become the digital age’s equivalent to TV’s advertising juggernaut, how do you devise a social network-based marketing strategy or justify an ad spend when all you’ve got to go by are the confessions of some inflated egos?
This is perhaps why, as the Wall Street Journal reports, marketers are moving past focus groups and questionnaires to mockups of supermarkets where they observe how test subjects react to products on the shelves. They’re paying attention not just to where subjects stop and what they pick up but also to their eye movements.
Marketers have long been aware that product testers unconsciously seek to please researchers conducting the tests. Moreover, psychology and marketing professors say people often don’t realize what draws their eyes or how they truly feel about a product. They also overestimate the likelihood they will make a purchase, ignoring competing products and their own budgets.
“There’s often a big disconnect between what people want to do and what they say they want to do,” says Steve Posavac, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. “Any attitude,” he says, “becomes more extreme” in research studies.
What does retina-tracking technology mean in the battle for the hearts, minds – and eyeballs – for online marketing? It would seem to suggest that “friend” recommendations are considerably less reliable than what people think about recommending but are sometimes too embarrassed to actually pull the trigger on. (The Facebook effect is further diluted by the fact that marketers openly try to buy your vote by offering discounts and other incentives for a “like.”)
It would seem to suggest that a network that relies primarily on endorsements, like Facebook, is going to be less a bellwether of preferences than one like Google, whose approach converts your Web activity (if you allow it) into suggestions you may not have considered.
The disconnect between liking and saying you like is a big reason, it would seem, that the default sharing of Facebook’s Timeline was such an important pre-IPO addition to the social network. A member who doesn’t curate her page is exposing the kind of proclivities she may not even be aware of, or could adequately articulate.
With TV it doesn’t matter what you say or how much you love to hate it – as long as you watch. It’s a different game on social networks, which are so heavily dependent on watching you. Bridging that disconnect is what will make social networks as successful as the TV networks.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: REUTERS/Chadwick Matlin.
PHOTO: The sun sets on the entrance sign at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, the night before the company’s IPO launch, May 17, 2012. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach.