In August 2015, YingYing Chen (IMC15) and a team of classmates gave one of the biggest presentations of their Medill careers. But when it was over, Chen felt it was only beginning.
“Digital, social and mobile advertising has been talked about a lot,” she said, discussing her team’s research, “but how the systems work in reality was still mysterious to me.”
Students in Medill’s Integrated Marketing Communications full-time master’s program form small teams for an Immersion Quarter in which they work to create solutions to marketing communications challenges for partner companies.
Chen worked on a team for Publicis Media, the holding company for data-driven media agencies like Zenith and Starcom. Publicis had asked a question that is key to successful marketing communications today: With all the media sources available to brand audiences, which are really getting their attention—and inspiring them to act? Chen’s team presented their findings to Publicis. They loved what the team presented and thought there were even more questions left to probe. Chen agreed.
“The idea gave me a hunch I had to explore further,” she said.
Chen chose to continue on the project as a research assistant after she graduated in December 2015. She became part of an ongoing collaboration among Medill students, faculty, researchers and industry partners. The resulting research, released and promoted by Medill’s Spiegel Research Center in early 2017, yields insights that could change how advertisers strategize.
What Kind of Branded Media Succeeds?
In the digital/social/mobile landscape, brand audiences are bombarded with thousands of messages through rapidly changing platforms. IMC professionals need clear metrics to predict what will engage audiences, driving them to take action and become consumers. The Spiegel/Publicis research offers one key factor.
The research shows how “paid” and “owned” branded media each affect brand success differently. “Paid” media includes content brands pay to host on outside platforms, like TV, radio or unrelated websites. Brands host “owned” media on their own websites, social media channels and other platforms.
In other words, paid media can impose on consumers’ experiences, as an ad interrupts a show or a blog post links to a retail site. But owned media aligns with consumers’ expectations, as a consumer chooses to visit and enjoy a brand’s media. Though owned media seems more likely to convert casual brand followers into consumers, this has been hard to prove until now.
Spiegel/Publicis’ research, which analyzed over 800 brands, shows brands with growing sales tend to spend more on their owned media. Brands that have lost sales, however, spend more on paid media. The data is now presented on Spiegel’s website, where an animated video made by Medill undergrads summarizes the results for industry audiences. Interactive graphs by the same student team let viewers engage with the data directly.
According to Chen, the data “synthesizes what’s going on in the digital, social and mobile world, and what it means to brands of various categories. It envisions a dynamic and interactive system that will help us not only understand, but also manage, the complexity of future advertising.” From iteration, to research, to presentation, this future-changing system was made by Medill.
Research Questions and Answers
At his company’s annual Media Summit in 2015, Publicis Chief Data Scientist Rob Jayson spoke with Tom Collinger, Medill professor and executive director of Spiegel, who was facilitating the event. Jayson raised a question about the impact of brands’ paid/owned media spend. Eventually, along with other faculty, Collinger developed the question into Chen and her team’s Immersion Quarter project for the summer of 2015.
After Jayson, like Chen, found further questions in the project’s results, he worked with Collinger to bring the paid/owned media research back to the Spiegel Center. Spiegel, which specializes in analyzing large amounts of consumer data, had the time, technology and resources to follow the project to its conclusion.
Like all Spiegel projects, this involved the efforts of student and faculty researchers. Medill IMC professor Martin Block stepped up as principal investigator. Chen, having finished her IMC master’s degree at the end of 2015, asked to assist in the research while she applied to PhD programs.
“I enjoyed the experience,” she said. “It made me dive into a lot of interesting databases and think about the dynamics between paid/owned media and brand success.”
Jayson appreciated how a combination of perspectives worked together in this phase of research.
“Our collaboration with the academic staff and students built on an original seed of an idea and data sources, and grew into a valuable insights tool,” he said. “It reminds us how important it is to collaborate with independent, non-industry thinkers who helped us to mold the project.”
The project supported what many had suspected: To excite and convert customers, owned media might be more powerful than paid. For brands struggling to optimize their media budgets today, this suggests a clearer path of action. Having found this crucial insight, Medill’s next step was to make it public.
Spreading the Story
Block and Jayson presented the conclusions in a paper at Advertising Research Federation’s New York Conference in March 2017. There, seasoned industry professionals familiar with this kind of data could understand how it affected their field—and the role Medill played in articulating that change.
The Medill network made the research accessible to a broader audience. Lauren Harris (BSJ18/IMC Certificate) was on the team of journalism and computer science students that was responsible for creating an animation to illustrate the findings on Spiegel’s website.
Harris said “getting to visualize that data was a challenge,” but “once we got a team together, we worked through it based on our skills.”
Throughout, the team liaised with Block and Chen to make sure their work was on-point. Harris said they also kept asking themselves, “Who are we showing this to? Who’s going to be watching this?” It ended up being for people already in the field—to provide them a narrative that changes their understanding of how paid media works. In the end, Harris found this a valuable opportunity to stretch herself in new ways and be involved with Medill colleagues “coming together as different parts of the same machine.”
Once the site was complete, another student team worked to raise awareness of it. Joanna Ladzinski (IMC17) is chief editor of the Spiegel Marketing Impact team, a group of IMC students who use their marketing, writing and design skills to promote Spiegel’s work across digital and social platforms. Ladzinski said promoting the research brought the team’s Medill classes to life.
"It's been great to see theory in action, and figure out ways to activate paid vs. owned media,” he said.
The paid vs. owned media story is getting many views, and audiences are engaging with Medill. Ladzinski notes that “the video coupled with the interactive portion of the site resonate with our audiences." Collinger also pointed out that at the start of April, the research had already garnered over 1,000 LinkedIn views.
The achievement goes beyond those numbers, too. Chen, now a PhD candidate at Michigan State University, feels the project will change the field.
“It’s groundbreaking to future advertising. Advertising is no longer a linear path. It has radically changed because of technology. The future of advertising will align with the spirit of IMC: consumer-centric, data-driven and machine mediated.”
That’s a future that will continue to be aligned by Medill family members, and all their remarkable skills, working to build it together.