Let’s science the shit out of this

From Playback magazine: Out-of-the-box approaches to getting (entertainment) products in front of the right people. (Odd Squad pictured.)

If you saw Ridley Scott’s The Martian, some of the best parts of the film are the montages of his attempts to survive on and escape Mars. Or, as screenwriter Drew Goddard had lead character Mark Watney put it during a particularly complex mission: “I’m going to science the shit out of this.”

If, theoretically, that delicate approach could get a man off of Mars, can you similarly use math and science to make a better creative product? Streamers like Netflix and Amazon have made data analysis an art form, using it to inform their programming choices and hook members on new shows. But it’s more than just getting the content right: any marketer will tell you the key to successfully engaging with consumers (or audiences) is in getting the right message in front of the right person at the right time. And isn’t that the same for entertainment? While there’s no fail-safe formula for divining that perfect trifecta, different industries are getting pretty close. Here’s how four companies use process and data to fine-tune different products for market – and what entertainment professionals could learn from them.

michelle stewart, director brand marketing, rbc

Michelle Stewart, director brand marketing, RBC


Company: RBC

The tool: An electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure emotional connection with audiences at the brain level.

Core goal: As part of a broader branding effort to connect with younger consumers, RBC identified branded content as a key area it could explore.

Working with Shaftesbury/Smokebomb, the brand commissioned the 20-part YouTube series V Morgan is Dead with the intention of creating secondary content that brought the bank brand to the fore, says Michelle Stewart, director brand marketing, RBC.

After commissioning the series, but before creating the ancillary content, the team worked with Toronto-based neuromarketing firm Brainsights to do an analysis. Using the first three episodes, audiences were hooked to an EEG machine, which tracks surface-level brain activity, to identify what portions of content resonated most (different areas of the brain light up depending on a person’s emotional response to content).

They identified characters that connected most strongly with consumers (Jenna, for example would go on to star in the RBC content available on the microsite), which were misunderstood (Andrew, for example, was well liked but people didn’t quite connect emotionally with his delivery), as well as storylines that held the most potential. This allowed the RBC and Shaftesbury/Smokebomb team to tweak the content on the fly, and made it more tailored to what consumers actually wanted to watch (such as punching up the humour).

How it could translate to other, non-branded-content projects: While neuromarketing (or neurocinema) seems a bit sci-fi in terms of content creation, Stewart says Brainsights testing is on par financially with other forms of market research and is more accessible than people may realize. Those who invest in analytics for their content may want to incorporate EEG testing in their mix, she says. In order to make the content something people want to both watch and share, it’s important that it connects at an emotional level, and what better way to ensure it’s connecting than through a look at the brain.

Stewart is a big advocate for testing as you go, but adds that this mentality requires broadcasters and producers to be nimbler and change their products based on real-time consumer demands.

“Ultimately, it’s about ensuring you’re breaking through and having that connection with the audience you want to,” she says. “The more we know and understand their behaviours and user patterns with the content, the more we’re able to deliver what they want and make sure we’re doing it in a way that’s relevant.”

Possible applications: With even the biggest companies more risk-conscious than ever, neurocinema offers companies large-to-small a compelling, innovative way to measure effectiveness of content. Broadcasters or even medium-sized producers could use the tool to measure pilots or trailers for their projects, even before they submit them to clients or partners.

michele sexsmith, svp environics

Michele Sexsmith, SVP, Environics

Demographics deep dive

Company: PR and research firm Environics. Clients include: Scotiabank, CTV and Best Buy.

The tool/process: Developed PRIZM platform to identify shared neighbourhood attributes to allow clients, such as banks and retailers, to hyper-target marketing efforts geographically.

Core product/process: PRIZM, first developed by Environics in 2005, is a series of 68 demographic profiles that it can use to help its clients reach potential audiences, says Michele Sexsmith, SVP and practice leader. The profiles were developed using an array of public and proprietary data, including household statistics, consumer behaviour, spending habits, even social and world-views, all organized using postal codes. Each profile pulls in everything from income levels to building permits and immigration patterns, to media consumption and pet ownership to create a single way of talking about an entire neighbourhood.

The geographic nature of this platform allows the firm to work with clients at a local level to develop communication plans that fit with the people in each region. While mass campaigns that cross the country have their appeal, marketing is best able to connect when it feels personalized and tailored to people individually, she says. For example, retailers would want to target consumers from downtown Toronto (“urban digerati,” those who hold socially progressive views and tend to question authority) would craft a different strategy than those wanting to reach rural Barrie, ON natives (typified as young blue collar workers who are comfortable in their jobs, but only work as a means to an end).

Cost wise, Environics works with all manner of clients, she says, and reports can be generated for any budget, starting at a couple hundred dollars.

How it could translate to entertainment: When it comes to producing content, Sexsmith is an advocate for geographically driven data. Different types of content (and associated marketing efforts) will resonate with different people in different regions. Not only can this help in the content creation process, she says, but it can help producers and broadcasters know who exactly to be marketing their shows and films to (social progressive films for those socially progressive neighbourhoods, blue-collar fare for those blue collar regions).

Her first piece of advice is to always tie any analytics to geographical data. Media players also need to think beyond just media consumption: It’s more than just who watched what and for how long. There needs to be a deeper understanding of what the audiences share in terms of social values, income levels, even pet ownership, which can better help inform the content and branding.

The PRIZM database has taken upwards of a decade to get where it is today, and each of the 68 profiles has more than 20,000 data points associated with it, Sexsmith says. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel, she says. Instead, broadcasters should partner with third-party companies to augment their audience information.

Possible applications: The typical release of a Canadian indie is regional and small-market-driven. What could be more useful for this release strategy than geographical demographic data? Distribs (and those who DIY it) could easily and handily craft small-market strategies using this cost-effective method.

aran hamilton, president, co-founder, vantage

Aran Hamilton, president, co-founder, Vantage

Big Data

Company: Vantage, a Toronto-based data analytics company that provides real-time data analysis for small and medium online retailers by combining data-points from all its clients into a single source.

What it does: Uses an artificial intelligence program (AI) to parse sales data and consumer information (such as age and gender, browsing patterns) to identify customers that will be most valuable to a business.

Core product/process: Small- and medium-sized online businesses are often at a loss when it comes to competing against big e-tailers like Amazon, as the sheer volume of sales gives the big players a leg up on the little guys when it comes to that type of data generation, says Aran Hamilton, president and co-founder of Vantage. Amazon is able to use millions of points of sales (as well as other information, collected via cookies, such as sites visited and browsing patterns), to discern products people are most likely to want to buy or sites they’re most likely visit.

By combining all its clients into a single point database, Vantage has created a “big data” source for retailers who would be unable to access it otherwise. It’s all real-time, anonymous and aggregated data. For example, it can compare purchase and browsing history of two shoe retailers to help a third identify the best target demographic.
Hamilton says a primary focus isn’t just identifying potential customers, but identifying high-value potential customers, those who will return again to make purchases (versus those who just browse and never buy) and share their experiences with others. The AI tracks overall customer patterns: who spends what, where do they visit, and is that person likely to complete their purchase at the end of the transaction? Retailers can then send out targeted messages to those specific audience members, rather than try and reach everyone, making their marketing budgets more effective.

The service costs roughly $75 a month, plus an additional 15% of the advertising budget for specific campaigns using the service (which usually hover in the $500 a month range).

“We’re working with a lot of small and medium sized retailers,” says Hamilton. “They’re the ma and pa shops. We’re supporting their passion projects, but because of that there’s an inclination for people to avoid the numbers and not see if there are patterns. [But] if you have limited resources, you need to find people who help you follow your passion.”

How it could translate to entertainment: Big data is a subject being tackled by broadcasters on a large scale right now via the set-top-box working group set up by the CRTC (seeking to discern how the reams of user data stored in those boxes could be used by the industry for measurement purposes).

But there are other avenues by which broadcasters and their producing partners could tap into the power of mass aggregated data, Hamilton says. A company could hire a machine-learning specialist to crunch numbers from various sources (audience demographics, ratings, most popular websites) and create working reports of best-possible audience targeting strategies. Or, Hamilton ambitiously suggests, Canadian broadcasters could band together to analyze audiences of similar shows for specific patterns: are there attributes superfans share that are unique to certain genres? Do they have common media habits? If the data were shared in an anonymous way, it could benefit everyone, he suggests, much in the same way Vantage’s anonymous aggregation of competitors’ data ultimately works to the greater good of its clients. “This is not about mining data in a way that’s privately destructive,” he says. “It’s about [using] data in an innovative way.” 

Possible applications: Without a studio system to bolster multi-pilot production, Canadian broadcasters have to make their big decisions upfront: full-season orders are the norm here, albeit, the nature of a “full season” is not quite what it used to be. This type of initiative could give broadcasters a clearer picture of what audiences are looking for, possibly reducing the dreaded single-season run (which benefits no one). Once production is underway, the data could help their producing partners shape characters or story arcs, especially for genre programming.

steve mast, chief information officer, delvinia

Steve Mast, chief information officer, Delvinia

Building an innovation framework

Company: Toronto-based Delvinia, a digital research and marketing consultancy. Clients include insurance companies Green Shield Canada and Manulife. It also owns and operates an ongoing online research panel called Asking Canadians.

What it does: “Innovation framework,” an in-house-developed, branded process to determine new business strategies or digital products for its clients. Tagline: “Ideate. Prototype. Validate.”

Core product/process: The Innovation Framework is a three-part formula designed to be iterative, says Steve Mast, Delvinia’s chief innovation officer. It uses progressively larger focus groups to test products and platforms, making changes on the fly, rather than try and get a perfect product to market on the first attempt. The process lasts only a couple of weeks, and is meant to get people to a solution faster than traditional product development (which can take months in the marketing world).

Step one: Identify the business problem that requires the solution, and come up with a workable and scalable solution (such as a new tool for a brand’s website or a mobile app) in three days. The Delvinia team then creates short, low-fi videos (using wireframes) and sends it out to an internal focus group to see if it garners interest outside the agency-brand bubble.

Step two: Once the concept is greenlit, the team creates a mocked-up version of the product or platform. It’s not a fully functional product – just smoke and mirrors, Mast says. A slightly larger group of testers explores the concept and their every movement is tracked: from how long people spend on a particular page, to where they’re visiting and where they don’t.

Step three: A fully functional prototype is built and rolled out to a larger group of beta testers. It’s not perfect, Mast says, and issues are fixed as users encounter them. After a few weeks, once the feedback stops coming in, it’s rolled out to a mass audience.

How it could translate to entertainment: Mast says this could easily be used to test new content or platforms. While the Delivinia framework is similar to how shows are created (ideate, proof-of-concept, broadcast), Mast suggests going to the end audience directly for testing.

Though Delvinia has the added benefit of its Asking Canadians platform for focus-group testing, a more grassroots approach involves YouTube shorts, and taking the feedback and working that in before presenting or pitching the show for a more mass broadcast. A strategic testing approach that involves focus-group style testing also has the added benefit of fan engagement, Mast says. Pricing for this type of service is directly dependent on factors such as size and scope of the project, and the desired outcome.

Possible applications: Iterative testing is ideal for those transitioning existing IP, such as video games, books or even web series, to larger-scale projects, such as TV series or films. Stage one and two (ideate and proof-of-concept) will have been completed, while original IP holders should have existing metrics around audiences already at their fingertips.

This article originally appeared in Playback’s Fall 2016 issue