Friday, 16 July 2010

What can the Means-End Chain teach us about digital content?

      So, its no big secret that two of my largest geek obsessions: psychology & digital marketing, come together rather often on the blog. However, where as I normally start with a digital marketing concept/story and throw in some consumer psychology, I thought it might be entertaining to do the opposite.

Aside from being as far from the actual World Cup as possible, what makes Nike's ad easy to share while others aren't?

      With this in mind, I was recently considering what tools might be useful to differentiate the mass of digital content posted by brands. With the World Cup coming to a close and people marveling over the number of views advertisements like the Nike 'Write Your Future' video garnered, its interesting to consider what separates this from other similar, less viewed World Cup content. Along these lines, I thought I would take a relatively basic consumer psychology concept, the means-end chain, and apply it rather liberally to the world of online viral marketing, to view content in new ways.

What is the Means-End Chain?

       The means-end chain is, at its most basic, a way to describe how a product interacts with the consumer. Whereas more complex explanations can be found elsewhere, for our purposes, I'll go with a basic definition I've used since school At its heart, a product on the means-end chain breaks down in three different areas:
Not every product touches the consumer in each of these areas (some basic products may only deliver a basic benefit and possess simple attributes), but by analyzing a product along these lines, we begin to take apart its essence. Within each of the three groupings, two subgroups exist, which begin to paint a progression for product analysis (shown below).
 These six sections allow marketers to analyze not only how a product interacts with the consumer, but where advantages may exist in relation to similar products. For example, on the surface, few differences exist between Coke & Diet Coke. If we put Coca-Cola Classic on the means-end chain, we see that it hits the boxes expected from a soft drink:
Purchasing, possessing & consuming a Coca-cola isn't a life changing decision, no matter how many people you buy a Coke for or teach to sing. Even its psycho-social benefits (those conferred from others) are tenuously weak, with a fleeting acceptance coming from only the most needy of consumer. However, when we compare it to Diet Coke, we can see that in some interpretations, a soft drink can become more than just a beverage.
By dipping into enabling values the consumer may have about fitness or getting into shape, Diet Coke has the ability to interact on a level traditional Coca-Cola cannot. While it may be tenuous to say that one Diet Coke could enable a consumer to achieve a step towards a long term goal, it does point out how we project possibilities onto products in noticeable ways.

What does this have to do with viral content?

Moving away from the straight forward example of two related products, its clear to see that the basic concept of the chain is useful to think of products in a different way. However, relating this product analysis to online content however, may be more difficult.

When someone mentions viral marketing & the internet, a variety of things can come up. From tweets to pictures, video & websites, users & brands both enjoy the benefits of the way content travels online. The reach generated by a user generated movement can multiply the effectiveness of a brand's campaign exponentially, but predicting what content will resonate with the online audience is difficult. Much like predicting product/consumer interaction, the way users consume online content is unpredictable, leading to uncertainty about communication performance.

A focus group discussing re-tweeting last year attempted to sum up how content is passed on to me as 'attributional cool'. This meaning that users only pass on what they deem cool & interesting, hoping to impart a bit of that feeling to themselves as they share with their friends. Predicting what achieves the level of 'attributionally cool' is a nearly impossible task involving analysis of social norms, reference groups & a host of other complex factors. However, the relationship between the user, content & viral transmission begins in the same way as with the user & product.

Instead of a purchase & consumption, online content hopes to motivate the user into interaction & distribution. Therefore, it may be possible to compare two similar pieces of content, in the same way Coke & Diet Coke were compared, and see if some level of interaction dictated greater depth of engagement. While the very nature of viral content & 'attributional cool' lives in the Psychosocial area of the means-end chain, I believe the other areas can still help to unlock basic insights about content.

Applying the Means-End Chain to Digital Content....

Applying the chain to viral content, it seems that the attributes and benefits may possess a more obvious presence than values, as the relationship between content and the user is rather shallow. That aside, each area seems to take on new characteristics when thought of in the digital space.

Ok Go's 'Here It Goes Again' Video helps to illustrate how concrete attributes, such as embedding functions for content, can heavily shape pass-on performance

     Attributes, as we think of them in traditional product analysis, entails the actual dimensions & capacities of the product. With our Coke & Diet Coke example, the concrete attributes described unchanging things about the packaging and the liquid itself, while functional attributes described interpretive aspects such as taste. In applying the means end chain to digital content, concrete attributes can become the aspects of the product that control viewing such as resolution (HD or non-HD), encoding, video delivery platform (i.e. flash based or HTML 5), sound or no sound, embeddable or non-embeddable, etc. Functional attributes becomes analysis about the content itself, (i.e. does it feature recognizable characters, what is it's tone, etc.). While functional attributes may seem to play a larger role in viral pass-on than concrete attributes of a product, remember the performance of OK Go's viral music videos. After their treadmill based 'Here it goes again' went viral, their follow-up 'This too shall pass' featured disabled youtube video embedding at the behest of their record company. While this was eventually overturned, views of the video were significantly lower than the embeddable original, due to a change in the concrete attributes of the digital content.

Content such as the Toyota Sienna viral 'Swagger Wagon' illustrate the challenges in balancing depth of benefits with a target group to widespread appeal.

      Benefits, in traditional product analysis, are the deliverables that the product can bring (i.e. Coke quenches thirst (functional benefit) and it may signal something to others about your choices (psychosocial benefit)). Alternatively, when analyzing digital content sharing, the perceived psychosocial benefits play a large role in deciding if content will be passed on. The functional benefits of digital content speak to the enjoyment the viewer gets from consuming the content, while the psychosocial benefits speak more to the possible 'attributional cool' that the user feels he may get from sharing such content. While the psychosocial benefits may seemingly outweigh the importance of the functional benefits in assessing if content will be shared, we shouldn't discount the importance of the intial viewer experience in assesing content. How the initial viewer enjoys the content is very important on how he/she feels others will react to it. The reference groups of an individual also heavily shape expectations of what would be considered 'attributionally cool'. For example, a 15 year old might not progress down the means-end chain to the same level as a 35 year old family man when presented with content such as the 'Swagger Wagon' music video, though both may find humor in it. Therefore, the means-end chain helps to illustrate the challenge content faces when it hopes for a large pass on rate, delivering both functional and perceived psychosocial benefits to the largest audience possible.

Possibly one of the most well known pieces of digital content in the last few years, 'Yes We Can' illustrates how the rare phenomenon of tapping into the values part of the means-end chain can benefit a piece of content's consumption & pass-on

        As mentioned before, Values are the hardest level for both products and digital content to interact with the consumer. While few products can reach the consumer in a way that leads to delivering instrumental or terminal value, even fewer pieces of digital content can, due to fleeting engagement. However, given the scarcity and power of value based digital content, those that can latch onto some larger life goal gain a powerful chance to encourage pass-on. Content linked to political campaigns, such as the 'Yes We Can' video for Barack Obama's campaign illustrates how content may tap into larger goals due to its affiliations. While many politically related videos may touch on a similar topic in both attributes and benefits, the ability of the video to deliver the perception of instrumental value delivery gave it an appeal over others.


        So after attempting to apply the means-end chain to digital content, what have we learned? I think breaking down each section has shown that the 'content as a product' model works for analyzing how content is consumed. I think limitations exist in the power of the model based on the impact of reference groups and social norms, but that two similar pieces of content, with similar target groups and interests, can feasibly be compared for differences along the means-end chain. Overall, this entire exercise shows the value in applying new points of view to existing ideas, mining insight from the synthesis of different, but related, fields in marketing.

1 comment:

  1. I am a graduate research assistant currently conducting my own MEC research. I find your blog (this one in particular) very intriguing. As much I have read about MEC, there is very little mention of politics and how this research method can be applied to any area of communication. Your example of "Yes We Can" is great example of how marketers can use values, and MEC, to identify the untapped values that lie within. The way you integrate the MEC to digital content is so interesting. It wasn't even until recently that it was applied to hedonic products; your integration is really quite unique. Thanks for the great read!