Benefacta 2006
The Message is the Medium

.Findings from the CMD's Middletown Media Studies, which document the average Americanšs media habits, have captured the attention of the advertising, marketing, publishing, and broadcast industries.
Michael Bloxham, CMD director of insight and research, and Michael Holmes, CMD senior research fellow. Findings from the CMD's Middletown Media Studies, which document the average Americanšs media habits, have captured the attention of the advertising, marketing, publishing, and broadcast industries.

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To conduct the Middletown Media Studies, dozens of people, including many Ball State students, were employed as observers shadowing participants and using "smart" keyboards from the CMD to record their locations, life activities, media use, and media exposure.

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All roads—even New York City's Madison Avenue—lead to Muncie when it comes to learning how consumers interact with the ever-growing range of media available to them.

Ball State University's Center for Media Design (CMD) has conducted two major research projects—Middletown Media Studies 1 and 2—that document the average American's media habits. The findings have caught the attention of the nation's advertising, marketing, publishing, and broadcasting industries, eager to reach and engage their target audiences and the resulting high-stakes revenues.

"We're offering the kind of data that content providers don't often get," says Michael Holmes, senior research fellow in the CMD. "For example, television is still the ‘800-pound gorilla' in the world of media, but Americans are becoming increasingly adept at juggling their TV viewing with other media use." Whether you call it multitasking or the CMD-preferred "concurrent media exposure," the practice of accessing a mix of sights, sounds, and text is on the rise, with the components of the mix varying from generation to generation.

Both Middletown Media Studies build on Muncie's reputation as Middletown, the typical American community. The distinction was first earned from research done in the 1920s and '30s by sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd. This effort and later research have made Muncie one of the most studied cities in the nation. The premise is that the tastes and trends of Middletown residents reflect those of the rest of the country's population.

"This isn't downtown Manhattan, the Bay area of San Francisco, or Los Angeles," says Michael Bloxham, CMD director of insight and research. "Those areas are big, significant markets, but they aren't representative of the country as a whole. When large companies want to test their propositions, it's attractive to come here. People in this environment aren't urban sophisticates or metro-chic types. They're real people, and that's an advantage for us. If an idea works here, it's likely to work in the mass market."

What sets the Middletown Media Studies' research methods apart from other information-gathering methods could be summarized in the adage, "Seeing is believing." Observation, or "shadowing," is a key aspect of Middletown Media Studies data collection, and it results in data that are more accurate than those gathered from traditional telephone surveys or media diaries.

Rather than asking people to report their media use during phone interviews or in written logs, researchers shadow participants for an entire day. An observer—often a Ball State student—arrives at the participant's home in the morning equipped with a "smart keyboard," which resembles a simplified laptop. The observer stays with the participant all day and evening, recording the person's location, life activities, media use, and media exposure.

"We assign two observers per person, because the day is long enough that we need a shift change," explains Holmes. A total of 500 individuals were studied, which meant scheduling 1,000 observation sessions in Muncie and Indianapolis. "That's expensive, and it's also a considerable logistical challenge to have more than a dozen people in the field on any given day," he says.

The results of these forays into the field have application in the media industry and in academia. In addition to Holmes and Bloxham, Robert Papper of the Department of Telecommunications and Mark Popovich of the Department of Journalism—with faculty collaborators Carole Clark Papper, Melinda Messineo, and Paul Biner—are members of the primary research team. The researchers have prepared white papers based on their findings and have made numerous presentations. "In many ways, Middletown Media Studies have become a benchmark or reality check against which other research is judged," says Papper. "It's been gratifying to have our work cited in so many places by so many people."

The interest that their findings have generated within the media industry has enabled the CMD "to build relationships on some very exciting and large-scale projects with major partners," says Holmes, who describes the work as "an entrepreneurial effort that ultimately serves the academic mission of the institution."

The traffic between Middletown and Madison Avenue is two-way, with campus researchers calling on potential clients across the country and media executives visiting Ball State to see the work in progress. For example, a 14-member delegation from CBS recently traveled to Muncie and a national advertising group is considering hosting a meeting at the university.

Bloxham, a former media insider and a respected researcher in the U.K. who is now based at the CMD, is pleased to serve as the bridge between the industry and the university. "Media magazine once called me ‘Ball State's de facto ambassador to Madison Avenue,'" he recalls, adding that he is comfortable with the designation. "That's what I do."

Part of Bloxham's challenge is to assure media executives that the research Ball State offers the marketplace is not the esoteric product of an ivory tower think tank. Instead, the findings are timely and pertinent to real-world decision making. "I love to get up in front of an audience in an industry boardroom and say that there is absolutely no conflict between academia and the industry," says Bloxham. "In fact, they are very good bedfellows."