Episode 193

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The challenge with digital trends is that they are moving so swiftly, it’s hard to keep up. There are so many shiny objects flying around our heads, it’s dizzying. How do you know which ones are worth tracking and learning?

That’s where this week’s guest comes in. Tom Webster is the senior vice president at Edison Research. Edison is probably best known outside our world for being the sole provider of exit poll data during United States elections. But from our agency vantage point, most of us know Edison for their annual study, the Infinite Dial. The Infinite Dial remains the longest-running study of consumer behaviors around media and technology in America, and serves as the digital media trends bible for many since its inception in 1998.

The work that Tom and his team at Edison, along with partner Triton Research, have done for decades is highly anticipated every year and provides mission-critical information to agencies throughout the world. We’re going to dig into the data and find some surprises for you.

Tom Webster has nearly 20 years of experience researching consumer usage of technology, new media, and social networking. In addition to The Infinite Dial, he is the principal author of a number of widely-cited studies, including The Social Habit and Twitter Users in America. He is also the co-author of The Mobile Commerce Revolution, and a popular keynote speaker on data and consumer insights.

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • How the social media landscape is shifting
  • Why podcasting is becoming more popular
  • What works – and what doesn’t – in podcast advertising
  • The ins and outs of brand lift
  • Why being a ‘capital S’ show is important in terms of podcast popularity
  • A deep dive into the data from The Infinite Dial 2019
  • Why starting with the audience is critical for all good content
  • The work ahead of us in entering the voice assistant space
“With podcasts, agencies need to understand that putting on a show with a capital ‘S’ is not easy to do well.” – @webby2001 Click To Tweet “Podcast listeners are very different from blog readers. Podcast listeners have self-selected to give you 100% of their time on the most inefficient means of information transfer: listening to a 30-minute podcast. Those people are gold.” – @webby2001 Click To Tweet “Thought leadership isn’t just about getting your name out there. It has to be useful information to your audience.” – @webby2001 Click To Tweet “If you want to prove something, a study can be designed that proves it. But if you want to design a study that actually gets to the truth, you have to be prepared to hear the truth.” – @webby2001 Click To Tweet “A common best practice among really good professional content marketers is a willingness and ability to market your marketing.” – @webby2001 Click To Tweet

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Ways to Contact Tom Webster:

Speaker 1:

Are you tired of feeling like the lonely lighthouse keeper as you run your agency? Welcome to the Agency Management Institute Community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build A Better Agency podcast is now in our third year of sharing insights, and how small to mid-sized agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultants, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. I think one of the challenges, but also I think one of the more exciting parts of our world is that everything is constantly changing. And as we’ve talked about many times on this show, when I think about my 37-year career in agency life, but not a gray hair, the truth of the matter is that the speed of change is so dramatic now compared to what it was when I started, and I don’t think that’s going to slow down. I think everything is evolving.

And so, what that means is, whatever we know today to be true, we also know that tomorrow, it might be slightly different. And that’s one of the reasons why research is so important. It’s also one of the reasons why these new channels keep cropping up and old channels are evolving. And so, that’s the topic in the broadest sense of the word topic that I want to dig into today. And it starts with having a really brilliant thinking partner on this. And so, I was super excited when Tom Webster from Edison Research agreed to be on the show. I’ve known Tom for years.

One of the coolest things about my world and my job is I get to meet super smart people, and Tom is one of the most thoughtful and articulate thinkers that I know. So many of you probably recognize Tom’s name. He is the Senior Vice President of Edison Research. They do all kinds of custom research. They’re probably best known outside of our world for being the sole providers of exit poll data during the US elections, and they work with all of the major news networks.

But inside the marketing and agency world, they’re actually known for research that they do around technology and around communications, and probably most famously known for the Infinite Dial, which is the America’s longest running research series on digital media consumption. So, since the ’90s, they’ve been talking to consumers about how they are using digital media, what they value, what is turning passe for them. And so, they just came out in early 2019 with the look at 2018, the Infinite Dial, and we certainly will have a link for that inside the show notes.

But Tom and I are going to talk about that research, but also some other research that they do. And I promise we’ll give you plenty of links in the show notes, so make sure you head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com and under the podcast tab, you’ll find the show notes for the show. But what I’m really want to talk to Tom about is, is sort of what does all of this mean behind the data they capture? And specifically, what does it mean for us, as we try and create a voice and a brand, not only for our clients, but for our own agencies as well?

And how can we use some of these channels to better do that? And also, what’s trending? What is hot right now? What is not? So, we’re going to get into all of that. And I will get into it as much detail and channeling you and the questions I know that you’re thinking about as you’re on the treadmill or walking your dog or on the golf course with me. So, sit tight. And let’s dig into this conversation with Tom. So, without further ado, Tom, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Tom Webster:

Thanks, Drew. Thanks for having me. I’m glad we could both find a mutually agreeable time with our schedules.

Drew McLellan:

Me too. It took us a while, but it’ll be worth it. So, I have so many things I want to talk about. I’m not quite sure where to jump in, but I think let’s start with the research that you guys just launched earlier this year, the Infinite Dial, and I know that’s a project that you’ve done for many years. So, tell the listeners a little bit of the history of that project, and then what were the aha moments for you. If you’re looking through the lens of you’re an agency owner or a leader inside an agency, what would be the aha takeaways for you from that research?

Tom Webster:

Sure. So, the flagship public facing study that Edison Research does is called the Infinite Dial and we’ve done it since 1998, believe it or not. And as best we can tell, it’s the longest running study of consumer media and technology habits in America, and it’s covered everything from social media to streaming video to digital audio over the years. And I’ve been the voice of it for the last 15 years now, which is, I was just a boy then when you started, I think.

Drew McLellan:

You were on probation back then, right?

Tom Webster:

I was. I was just a child. And it’s really intended to be a currency study, a survey of record for any number of things. And it’s done every year to the highest research standards, the most ridiculously expensive way we can do it, which is an increasingly mobile phone heavy telephone survey. It’s still really the gold standard in survey research. And so, as a result of doing this since 1998, we’ve been able to track all of these different media consumption habits and behaviors and technologies over long periods of time.

And when you do a trending study like that, really, it’s the trend is what you’re looking at. And so, when you do see something that jumps the rails a little bit, it is a genuine aha moment. And I think there were a few of those this year. I think, certainly, one of the more newsworthy things that came out of this study related to social media where we showed a decline in Facebook usage for the second year in a row.

Drew McLellan:

And a pretty significant decline.

Tom Webster:

Yeah. And the interesting thing about this, Facebook themselves will tell you, we were adding users, we’re adding users, because what they’re telling you is that they have added user accounts and that people aren’t going through the onerous process of deleting their accounts. But what a survey like this can show you are the people who just say, well, I just stopped using it. And with over two years now, that number is about 15 million. And what that number masks is, is actually the fact that Facebook usage has gone up 55 plus, and it’s an even greater loss 12 to 34. If you look at that youngest end of the age demo, that’s been a loss actually of 17 million over two years. So, it ain’t nothing. That’s certainly, I think, one of the bigger aha moments.

Drew McLellan:

And from that data, though, but I also recall, though, it’s still the kingpin of social media in terms of activity level and user accounts and all of that, though, right?

Tom Webster:

Yeah, definitely. And I think, especially if you’re looking at an older audience, it does continue to grow. It’s at least flat in those middle years, and it does grow a little bit, 55 plus. It is still the 10-ton gorilla of social media. So, if you look at those numbers and you deduce that you should not be on Facebook with your brand, I think you’re reading it wrong. But if you’re a youth oriented brand, increasingly, we have compelling evidence that maybe it shouldn’t be your first stop.

Drew McLellan:

Right. And what should be my first stop if I’m looking for, let’s say, college aged kids?

Tom Webster:

Yeah. Well, it’s a three-way tie, which, again, given the fact that Facebook is still the dominant brand in social media, the fact that it’s a three-way tie, 12 to 34, is in and of itself, a pretty phenomenal result. And it’s essentially a three-way tie between Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. And if, in fact, there’s a question that we love to ask, we’ve asked it for the past five or six years, and it’s the social media brand you use most often your, your putative favorite social media brand. Back in 2015, in the 12 to 34 demo, Facebook had 58% of that, and Instagram 15%.

And if your Face book and you see those numbers start to decline, your strategy was, of course, to buy Instagram and start to collect the young in that way. But today, on that question, social media brand use most often, 12 to 34, the percentage of 12 to 34s who said Facebook combined with Instagram is less than Facebook was in 2015. And Snapchat is what’s really taken up a lot of the slack there. So, there are definite warning signs with Facebook, the brand, and Face book, the company, with 12 to 34.

Drew McLellan:

For lots of reasons, beyond usage, certainly, all the other issues that they’ve had suggests that they’re struggling.

Tom Webster:

Yeah. And we actually, because we were so curious about this finding, we have gone back into the fields to do some qualitative and quantitative research. And I believe either at the very end of May or in early June, we’re going to be coming out with a new report called the social habit. And one of the things it’s going to look at are the reasons why and having had a sneak peek at some of the early qual data on that, I think it’s not what everybody necessarily thinks or at least what the mainstream print journalists are reporting. So, should be some interesting findings there.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, that’ll be good. So, we’ll make sure we include a link to both the Infinite Dial in that new research in the show notes. What were some other takeaways? I know that a lot, and maybe this is my own bias, because I’m a podcaster, but I know that there were some pretty significant boosts in numbers on the podcast side of things, too, right?

Tom Webster:

Yeah, absolutely, and we’ve been tracking podcasting since 2006. So, really back early days of podcasting, and we’ve looked at it continuously since then. And throughout that 14 year history so far that we’ve tracked it, it’s never really been a fast growing medium. It’s never shut up to the same extent that online video did, with the exception of this past year. And that’s actually another one of the real aha moments, I think, in terms of our Infinite Dial research. We’d like to track the percentage of people who say they’ve ever listened, monthly listeners and weekly listeners.

And in terms of people who say they’ve ever listened for the first time that crested the 50% mark, in fact, that’s 51% of Americans 12 plus. So, for the first time, you can actually call podcasting a true majority activity. And then certainly, I think you can call it a mainstream activity. And in terms of monthly listening, it’s grown from 26% of Americans 12 plus to 32% of Americans 12 plus, and that’s the largest single percentage point gain.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, given that you’ve been around the block for a little while, when you watch the evolution of podcasting, do you think that’s just merely a … It’s a slow, but steady increase and is going to continue to climb? Did you think something happened, then all of a sudden, pushed it over this podcast content shifting? I certainly think there’s more storytelling and podcasts and more things that are not so business or just talk radio-esque podcast? So, what were some of the contributing factors from your perspective that caused that jump?

Tom Webster:

Yeah. I think the first thing that really happened was, I think, really three years ago, when Cereal really entered the parlance of at least agency life and the chattering classes, if you will. I mean, certainly, you wouldn’t call Cereal a hit and like a Super Bowl hit. But it became a hit in podcasting, and certainly, it became a shared experience for people who listen to podcasts to finally have a show that they listened to in common, much in the same way that people watched Mad Men in common. And so, as a result, podcasting started to get more press.

And now it didn’t necessarily show in user growth, because that continued to be slow and steady, but more attention was paid to the space. And as more attention was paid to the space, money entered the space. And really, the single biggest change that we’ve seen in the past two or three years is the influx of capital into podcasting. Where previously, we’d seen capital on the technology side. Now there’s capital being invested on the content development side.

And so, what you’re getting now, or podcasting has always benefited from the storytelling capabilities and skill, narrative skill, of public media producers, for example. NPR is one of our clients. But that content is of a type, it’s reasonably highbrow. And if you looked at the charts for most popular podcasts, even today, it looks nothing like the Nielsen top 10 TV shows. But that’s changing, and you’re starting to get companies, I think, Wondery is a really good example here, putting out a mass appeal, kind of middlebrow content that I think is really enjoyable by a wide range of people.

And that’s starting to bring more people to this space. Because ultimately, people don’t become interested in a technology not to a large scale. You can’t educate them to care about it, but what they do care about is a show. And we’re starting to get great shows, and those great shows are really promoting medium.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah. I think it’s an exciting time to think about the medium as a viable option. I know a lot of my listeners are either they have a podcast around a core niche or expertise, or maybe they’re producing them for clients. So, I think it becomes a much bigger opportunity for agencies as they look forward. Because if their clients do have a subject matter expertise who have really unique story to tell or some interesting clients that tell a compelling connective tissue story, I think now, all of a sudden, the audience is starting to present itself in a more unified way.

Tom Webster:

Yeah, I would agree with that. But I would caution agency creative, that doing great audio is really, really difficult. It is much more difficult than great video. And really, to maintain that theater of the mind and that narrative thread with an audio only medium, it’s really hard to do. And I think that’s why you’ve seen some leaders in the space, in terms of the content space, get some capital, get some investment, because they’re demonstrating a skill that is actually more uncommon than you might think. And it’s one thing, I think, to put together an interview or a show about something, but actually putting on a show, a show with a capital S is not the easiest thing to do well.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It makes me think of old school radio, and even the great radio spots of when radio was the powerhouse that it used to be, and it really was theater of the mind. And people were very deliberate about telling the story and weaving all of the elements into it. And so, they really was producing, as you said, a capital S show. So, I’m hoping that that’s what we start to see, is more of that commitment and deliberation, as opposed to people thinking of it as more of a throwaway.

Tom Webster:

Yeah, and I think a lot of the people who maybe have heard the term podcasting, but have yet to really investigate it, mistakenly equate it with talk radio. And of course, talk radio in this country is largely syndicated a lot of political talk. And frankly, it’s a lot of ad lib. And sometimes it’s okay, and sometimes it’s not very okay. But, really, what you and I are both talking about here, it goes back to the genius of Paul Harvey, who could tell a number, any number of great stories in just four or five minutes, wrapped around a compelling advertisement or two that you actually cared about.

Because he scripted everything with great care, one of the great rhetoricians, I think, of broadcast radio history. Everything was scripted with great care to lead you to want to know more and to keep you interested. You can’t just turn on the mic and do that. It’s a real skill.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I can remember listening to him, and this ages me a little bit, but I wouldn’t get out of the car until I heard the end of the story. You wouldn’t walk away in the middle. Whereas I think a lot of mediocre content, you’re like, okay, well, I’ll catch that later or I don’t really care. But you’re right, the way he told the story, the way he did create theater of the mind compelled you to stay until the very end.

Tom Webster:

Yeah. And I love that moment that you just talked about that, the moment where you wouldn’t get out of the car. And even in broadcast radio, that’s a very uncommon skill. I mean, I think, Howard Stern, believe it or not, I think has always had that skill, one of the greatest interviewers in broadcast radio history, could disarm an interview subject in seconds and lead them down a path that even they didn’t want to go down. You wouldn’t leave your car. And I think my only point here is that it’s an uncommon skill. And the companies that I think do that really well, they’re starting to get snapped up.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, it’s fertile ground for agencies. I mean, certainly, they have a huge history in telling stories in a compelling way. And so, hopefully, they can grab that challenge and create something magical about it. Because I think the opportunity is there.

Tom Webster:

I do, too. And the great thing about podcasts, I think, and why they have intrigued me as a medium for as long as they have is you are almost nothing else, except a movie theater advertising, preshow cinema screen advertising, or a truly captive audience. I mean, podcasting is a very lean forward medium that demands your attention. You can’t really listen to a podcast while you’re working or trying to concentrate on something else very well. So, when you are listening to a spoken word podcast, it’s got your full attention.

And to date, we haven’t ruined podcasting with advertising. We’re nibbling around the edges of that. But to date, I think because it remains a fairly ad Spartan environment and in a lot of cases, the advertising and sponsorship messages are integrated by t