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Getting beneath the numbers: understanding content consumption in a post-COVID world

Each year this report looks at a specific area that we believe is having an impact across the entertainment and media sector - whether it is blurring of business models, the importance of trust, a deep dive into streaming and live entertainment or a way forward from the depths of the COVID pandemic. This year, we wanted to address a number of questions that we are continually asked, and we believe will help inform conversation as the entertainment and media industry shapes a way forward.

The areas explored this year were:

  • What factors influence the content people consume and why?
  • What content consumption behaviour has changed as a result of the pandemic and is that the new normal?
  • Does the industry need to adjust the way it thinks about content production, distribution and consumption?

What became clear in our research approach undertaken across a series of qualitative interviews and a bespoke quantitative survey, was that the simplicity of this enquiry was challenged by the complexity of the responses received. Something as seemingly simple as how someone finds their way to a specific type of content revealed layers of decision-making - some deliberate and some subconscious - that ultimately drive consumption choices. (The research methodology and approach is contained in the appendix of the report).

The research led to three main findings that are further explored below:

  1. People’s content appetite - and its elasticity - is largely determined by four key factors:
    • How their preferences and interests are shaped;

    • What their connection is to the content they consume;

    • How they have found specific content through referral; and 

    • How, when, where and why the content is accessed.

  2. The type of content consumption falls into three main categories, which vary significantly by demographic, content type, time available and desired experience:
    • Routine consumption  - where content is consumed in a habitual way, often at the same time of day, in the same place and for similar reasons. 

    • Spontaneous consumption - where little thought or consideration goes into the content selection, usually filling time and requiring low concentration.
    • Planned consumption - the most conscious and considered consumption where at least 30 minutes+ is set aside for the consumption of specific content, often as the primary purpose and with little interruption.
  3. How people watch, listen, read and play content has changed as a result of COVID-19, with new behaviours embedding within key groups and the belief that these modified behaviors are the "new normal".

People’s content appetite and its elasticity

We define people's content appetite as their capacity and desire to consume specific content. While a distinctly personal experience, there are four key factors that shape people's content appetite and how willing they are to stretch it to try new things, or conversely, set limits regarding how far outside their normal consumption they are prepared to venture.

Not surprisingly, we found that the content appetite of younger demographics was the most elastic as they have a higher preparedness to trial new forms of content, new genres and new platforms, as routines may not yet been embedded. With elasticity comes a degree of transience and a lack of "loyalty" to one platform over another. The content truly is king in that they will go to wherever the content is, and faster if it is free.

Older demographics' content appetite is somewhat less elastic, as there are specific routine-based consumption patterns that are closely tied to day part and activity. While there is some preparedness to trial new content, it is most closely linked to a referral or a connection that hooks into a sense of nostalgia or familiarity.


Factor 1: How people’s preferences and interests are shaped

There are two distinct elements that shape people’s preferences when considering content. The first, and the most influential, is genre. Once a person shows a preference for a specific genre or genres, it is likely to play a major role in them exploring different facets of the genre across multiple platforms. More than generic labels such as "drama" or "comedy", these genres can become quite specific, such as "Nordic noir", "true crime", "paranormal encounters" or "romantic reality". The more specific the genre, the deeper the engagement may become as fans coalescing on social media pages to discuss recent episodes, listening to podcasts or writing fan fiction. 

The second element that shapes people’s content interests and preferences is the motivation to consume the content. The main motivators revealed through the research were:

  • Learn something about myself, the news, trends or the world around
  • Escape from the day-to-day routine 
  • Reward myself with an indulgence or ‘guilty pleasure’
  • Relax by tuning out or passively engaging with the content
  • Rebalance mental health through use of meditation/calming content
  • Connect with others by sharing content or an experience
  • Challenge my own thinking or life experience
  • Relieve boredom when in between activities

While people's motivation changes depending on personal circumstance, it was clear from the research that content was often consumed as a way to rebalance mood or to create a change in mindset at any given time. This was particularly true of the rebalance, escape and relax motivations.


Factor 2: People’s connection to the content

One surprising outcome of the research was the level of connectivity people have with the content they consume. In many cases, there is an implied sense of ownership over the content ("my show", "my team", "my news", "my podcast"), however the connection to content went much deeper as it played the role of companion for some people, just as it was a way to connect with their family or friends, or it tapped into a sense of nostalgia that harked back to a different time or place in their life.

Implied ownership

People’s connection to content often goes deeper than entertainment in that there is a level of personal investment that leads to a sense of ownership, relationship and connection not seen across all platforms or media. The concept of "my show", "my team", "my news", "my podcast" demonstrates the level of personal investment - in time, energy and in some cases money - that people are prepared to commit, often across platforms.

By way of example, if an AFL fan follows a specific team, they are more likely to follow that team across multiple platforms and channels. Across a week, they may watch the game in person, or on linear TV or a streaming service, listen to the team’s weekly podcast, tune in for a radio interview with the captain, and follow the players across social media. In this instance, the media facilitates that relationship and connection. This gives the media a critical role to play; as the connector between fan and team, the media too derives a halo benefit as the key connector. The better that experience, the more highly the media is valued.

Companionship

People using content as a companion while they undertake other tasks is not a new phenomenon. Radio has long played the role of companion while undertaking other activities such as driving, gardening and working around the home, just as linear television is often kept on in the background at homes even when household members were not actively watching specific programs. As more options have become available, the number and nature of "content companions" has also grown. Music streaming in the home has increased in line with its overall growth, and the advent of smart speakers has further accelerated this trend.

In a COVID-19 context, with many people forced to work at home for extended periods, there was initial growth in consumers’ desire for for background noise across the typical working week. For example, terrestrial radio for example saw its audiences spread from traditionally peak periods of breakfast and drive across the day at the height of lockdowns. As time has progressed into the more “new normal”, for those more regularly working from home, the need to reduce distraction to enable quiet focus on their work or not disrupt calls took over as quiet time increased in value.

Family connectivity

People’s connection to specific content can be strongly influenced by the role it plays within families or close friendship groups, and not always in the same household. Content, whether it is appointment viewing on free to air television, or listening to the radio or podcasts in the car, has an ability to bring people together through a shared experience. Equally, the role that adults play in ‘filtering’ appropriate content can not be underestimated as parents and caregivers have a heightened sensitivity of what is age appropriate when children are present. Research respondents noted that their level of conscious consumption around children was heightened during the pandemic, however this became more difficult to manage as the longer lockdowns continued.

Children are not only a filter for content, but also can help broaden the elasticity of an adult's content appetite by introducing them to new forms of content and access options. While not all adults are the beneficiaries of the "reverse parenting", having a tween or teen explain the workings of social media, gaming and interactive content provides another point of family connection and may broaden the content appetite of the adult. Interactive gaming, for example, experienced a spike in consumption during the pandemic - largely attributed to new audiences giving something new a go, influenced by children and other household members.

Home-grown content and parochialism

For those not born in Australia, or from a non-English speaking background, being able to stay in touch with their heritage or culture through content is a critical part of their overall wellbeing. The range of Broadcast Video on Demand (BVOD), Streaming Video on Demand (SVOD), music and podcast options available can help promote this sense of connection and create a sense of belonging and familiarity for viewers, readers and listeners.

For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the First Nations peoples, the availability of relevant content through a range of platforms - whether it is broadcast television through NITV, BVOD, SVOD or spoken word content such as podcasts - has been identified as a critical part of cultural connectivity and was highlighted during NAIDOC Week 2021 as part of the “Heal Country” initiatives. 

The "localised" nature of content, at either a town, city or state level, can also play a significant role in consumption. The availability of local content - whether it be news, information or local stories - all add to an individual's sense of connection to the people and places in which they live. This becomes increasingly important as people look beyond what they are seeing through social media and look for a more meaningful way to connect to “my hometown”, particularly during COVID-19 when local infection rates were essential information for residents.


Factor 3: Finding specific content through referral

The third factor that determines a consumer's content appetite is the way in which they are referred to content. The reason why this has such an influence over appetite and elasticity is that it is the key way that new content, genres and platforms are introduced. There are three main types of referral that directly influence appetite: 

Personal referral and word of mouth

Undoubtedly word of mouth referral from a trusted family member or friend remains the most powerful form of referral for content. The trust in the referral provider comes from a belief that they understand the person to whom the referral is being made, and most likely have a good sense of just how elastic their content appetite is based on their knowledge of the person and what they like to watch, read, listen to or play.

Social inclusiveness and social currency

The importance of referral as a form of social inclusiveness has gained more prominence in recent years, particularly as COVID-19 lockdowns meant that many more people were consuming similar content. In the absence of the "water cooler" talk, the sharing of content recommendations became a big part of most people’s lives during the confinement of 2020 as content such as Tiger King and The Queens Gambit on Netflix became talking points across demographics, including through social media feeds. People felt compelled to watch the content in order to be included in conversations and social interactions. Apps such as Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party) also introduced a new way for friends to socialise by watching a movie in sync during lockdowns. 

This is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but its importance was accentuated in 2020 as interactions were often limited to video conference calls, where common content watched, read, listened to or played became one of the few shared experiences upon which people could have an informed and inclusive conversation. In effect, the content consumed became a type of "social currency" in that the more of the popular content that was consumed, the more people could be included in shared experiences and discussions.

Letting the algorithm do the work… to a point

The role of artificial intelligence (AI) and the recommendation engines of the main streaming services across audio and video platforms definitely made it easier for people to find content if they were unsure of what to listen to or watch next. According to our colleagues at PwC US, "Nearly one-third (31%) of survey respondents said that easy, personalized content recommendations would be a reason for staying with a streaming service”. While there was a sense that this made the decision for us to find content that was within the usual content appetite, it did run the risk of narrowing the selections a person may make and many research respondents noted an "epiphany moment" when they realised that they were effectively stuck in a specific genre or category of content thanks to the AI of the given platform. The AI, or referral engine, may not evolve as quickly as the user does, especially for younger people, who are often looking to expand their appetite and are not necessarily looking to be "locked in" to a specific type of content or genre.


Factor 4: How, when, where and why the content is accessed

The ability to access the right content, at the right time, in the right place, on the right device, for the right period of time’ was a multidimensional challenge within the research. There are a number of ways that content appetites can be met, but determining which component leads the behaviour varied by demographic, and more importantly, where the person was and how much time they had available.

Albeit the sequence was not always consistent, the most common decision-making process was as follows:

Graph 1

Three examples of the content selection process:

Graph 2
Graph 3
Graph 4

It is important to note that much of this content selection process is done subconsciously. Initial indications from the research suggest that the more time a person had available, the more considered the selection at the ‘activity’ stage and ‘motivation’ stage. The less time they had available, the less likely they were to start a new piece of content such as a series or new program, and they will generally stay within their normal repertoire of content.

The key here for content creators and owners is knowing how to influence the choice made at specific parts of the process, be it with the availability of variable format and length content (from long-form to ‘snackable’ highlights as video or audio), breadth of content, quality of experience fitting the device being used, or how to connect into the relevant motivations in an appropriate and positive way.

The search for value when accessing content

People are very aware of the value exchange related to content consumption. They understand that an exchange takes place - be it monetary (subscription), time (advertising) or data (user profile information) in order to access specific content. Of interest was the role that free content played; people who have accessed a specific form of content for free need additional convincing to pay for that same content on a different platform. For this to occur, the value proposition of the paid service needs to offer more than just the content they want to consume. The experience needs to justify the cost, not just the fact that it is the way for them to watch, read, listen or play the content they want.

Free trial overcomes the barriers for many if something they want exists only on a paid platform. Once the experience delivers, their preparedness to stay is based on the motivation that the specific content fits within their repertoire, the importance to them and the opportunity cost of using that money for something else. The growth in digital news subscriptions is a good example of this in that the more fragmented and partisan the news appeared to be across multiple free digital and social channels, the more people were prepared to pay for news from a trusted news provider. 

The three types of content consumption

The research also looked at the different types of consumption across what people watch, read, listen to, and play. We found that there are three main consumption types:

  • Routine - where content is consumed in a habitual way, often at the same time of day, in the same place and for similar reasons. The media consumption may not be the primary activity but rather a companion to it. For example, putting on the TV news while eating breakfast, listening to the radio on the way to and from work in the car, reading a book in bed, or catching up on digital news before getting out of bed in the morning.

  • Spontaneous - where little thought or consideration goes into the content selection, usually filling time and requiring low concentration. For example, short-form video content on YouTube, scrolling through social media, or flicking through pages of a magazine while waiting for an appointment.

  • Planned - the most conscious and considered consumption type, where at least 30 minutes or more is set aside for the consumption of specific content, often as the primary purpose and with little interruption. For example, attending a sporting event, going to the cinema or theatre, visiting an exhibition or gallery, watching a new release film on streaming platform, reading the weekend newspaper, or binge watching a series on BVOD or SVOD platform over a weekend. 

What was surprising in our research, was the amount and type of content that people consume spontaneously. Whether a function of shorter attention spans or multi-screening, the weighting to spontaneous consumption presents a challenge to advertisers in that the predictability of media consumption may be changing such that plans need to be more dynamically optimised.

By overlaying these consumption types across the dynamics of watch, read, listen and play, a clearer understanding is gained regarding the way the content appetite, content range and consumption opportunities work together.

Watch

Graph 1

Read

Graph 2

Listen

Graph 3

Play

Graph 4

What does this mean for content creators and advertisers?

There is no doubt that consumption behaviour changed across most demographics as a result of increased time at home during 2020 and lengthy lockdowns. Whether it was increased time on BVOD/SVOD watching content, more time reading news on digital platforms or less time at the cinema or watching entertainment, the range of content people consumed shifted, in many cases significantly. Whether subscribing to a new service, changing consumption routines or expanding their personal content appetite, many of these changes accelerated by the pandemic have stuck.

It is clear that the psychological and behavioural changes brought about by COVID-19, combined with the new hybrid work model that employers are adopting that reduces commuting time for many, means how much time people allocate to content consumption, and their motivations for it, requires a deeper level of consideration and understanding by those seeking to better connect with consumers. This is true for all advertisers - from FMCG brands,to financial institutions and even governments.

There are points of relevance and impact throughout the content consumption process that should be considered. A word of warning - advertisers need to balance commercial objectives with the consumers' right to choose the level of interaction they have with brands and organisations. For non-advertising environments, organisations have to think more carefully and creatively about how to make a relevant and authentic connection with audiences and consumers.

Considerations for brands when using advertising supported content/platform:

Graph 2

Considerations for advertisers when partnering with aon-advertising supported content/platform:

Graph 1

From four deceptively simple questions, the research highlighted the growing complexity facing consumers in how they find, prioritise and consume content. Whether they are reading, watching, listening or playing, the device they have within reach has a significant impact on content choice, just as the motivation for consuming content drives some of the decision making. Whether a function of limited attention span or lack of planning, the amount of spontaneous consumption means that reaching the core audience may be getting more challenging as the opportunity to reach them with a message has to compete with a more fragmented, and increasingly non-advertising supported, range of choices. Gaining share of attention in this space requires advertisers to look at a multilayered planning approach that balances the critical nature of reach, with the need to obtain frequency across a multitude of channels.  

While this preliminary research identified a number of insights that may help advertisers, media publishers and content creators, we believe we have just scratched the surface on what will be a much more complex battle ground in the coming years - the fight to gain and maintain attention when competition, and behavioural change as a result of the pandemic, are having a lasting impact across the industry.

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