Rethinking Media: Meet Broadcast Dialogue’s newest contributor Eric Blais

Eric Blais
Eric Leo Blais, MDes Strategic Foresight & Innovation, is the Director, Customer Success at StatsRadio.

How are new ideas diffused, propagated and adopted?

As a media designer focused on innovation, I’ve been pondering this lately. With the media marketplace so technologically saturated, and increasingly, content devalued to a commodity, I propose that we explore the question together. Let’s see what we can learn by acknowledging quality content as the asset that innumerable internet and broadcast channels and “me-too” markets are seeking for the competitive edge.

In the early days of the great technological expansion, it might have been enough for a media company to tout its new device or platform, but no longer. Audiences began more easily adopting new delivery systems. They adapted to the 24/7 presence of triple digit options for consuming content. Media companies needed to begin examining audience POV in order to keep or gain an edge. Now, they must move beyond and behind POV. They must study device usage, content choice, consumer device- and connectivity-spends, advertising impact, message adoption, channel preferences and connectivity choices — all this by age, by gender, by community, by culture, by education, by wallet-size and by geography.

This summer, my partner and I left Canada to travel by car (and a day trip by train) from Milan to Hamburg, with a detour to Prague. This was a trip 30 years in the making. Driving through the mountains in Switzerland where there are no guard rails and topping 188 km-an-hour on the Autobahn in Germany were terrifying and exhilarating – quasi-spiritual experiences.

My personal mandate during this trip was to explore how new ideas were being shared in each country, city and village we visited. As Director, Customer Success at StatsRadio, my focus is the evolution of radio for the benefit of our clients, so I deliberately tuned in to how audio was consumed in cars, stores, bars and hotels. During the trip, my partner and I listened to linear radio, our Apple Music playlists, podcasts and live music.

Here are some of my observations: all of our Uber and taxi drivers listened to terrestrial radio (jazz and pop). Stores and restaurants generally streamed playlists, either from proprietary audio feeds or from streaming services like Spotify. Of note, a 31-year old economics PhD candidate, studying in Taiwan and visiting Berlin, talked to me at length about Uncover: The Village, a CBC podcast!

During the 16-day journey, 100% of my radio consumption happened in the car. We listened to dance, pop and jazz. Since we couldn’t understand the languages well, we focused on the sounds of the radio hosts’ voices: tone, intonation, volume. Depending on the format, we could easily tell a commercial break from a bumper from stingers from the news. All in all, we found radio in all four countries to sound very much alike, and just like radio back home in Canada.

My approach to innovation is steeped in Design Thinking, encompassing both form and function. In gross generalization, the broadcast industry has focused primarily on function when adopting digital technology, relegating form to story or music formats. We have explored the use of new technology to better distribute and monetize content and interact with audiences, and we have focused on audience measurement as an indicator of performance. Even Apple, a company synonymous with design, streams radio stations that provide an experience identical to those of its traditional radio counterparts.

For 15 years, I, too, focused mostly on technology and emerging platforms as distribution mechanisms, giving little thought to the overall experience of consuming media.

I believe that there is a great opportunity, especially in radio, to become international leaders by focusing on form, beyond programming format. Case in point, my favourite case study at StatsRadio is from a general manager in Quebec who saw untapped potential in their radio station. By analyzing continuous measurement as a baseline, he was able to quickly pivot programming decisions in order to increase profits (over 100%) within a year.

I suggest applying Experience Design to radio, like retail does for shopping. I witnessed, at Milan’s Triennale and Munich’s Die Neue Sammlung, how information can be presented to drive awareness, educate, galvanize, emote and still entertain. Not your boring art museum, it was immersive and surprising.

In August 2012, I defended my master’s thesis in Innovation at OCAD U. I researched the use of emerging technologies to address issues related to aging. Today, were I to build on this investigation of a population segment with shrinking social systems and fewer introductions to new technologies and ideas, I would shift focus from their use of technology to the diffusion of new ideas among them. I would investigate the paths and channels of that diffusion so that it could be applied to other systems and industries, including Canadian broadcast.

A year and half later, I founded and led Numeris’s Innovation Lab. With my team, I applied design thinking and the tools of futurism to the Canadian Media industry, specifically in regard to audience measurement. During my tenure, I conducted two Strategic Foresight exercises with Numeris stakeholders. These, and the lab’s innovation initiatives, became the foundation on which Numeris leadership rebuilt their corporate strategies, policies and product development.

For those of you unfamiliar with Strategic Foresight (Futurism), it is the study of trends (observable behaviour over time) and their impact and implications, for the purpose of creating plausible visions of the future. The first exercise at Numeris, conducted in 2014, ran out to a very conservative, five-year horizon (2014-19). At this time, Netflix had just won an award for House of Cards; streamed video content was being recognized, scrutinized and awarded by its television counterparts. I conducted the second exercise in 2017, with a more broadly exploratory 10-year horizon (2017-2027). Netflix, Amazon and Crave were, by then, well established. Radio was chugging along.

Did the exercises work? The Numeris executive team’s analysis of the first set of 2019 scenarios were on point: the future unfolded exactly as the team had predicted. Much of TV consumption is now streamed on-demand. Radio is still broadly used and remains profitable (more so for some companies than others). When carefully constructed and managed, Strategic Foresighting can be a powerful learning tool for organizations. Come back to me in 2027 for an update on the success of the second exercise, but I can virtually assure you that Numeris will find that many trends play out as they had foreseen in 2017.

The successful completion of innovation processes and Strategic Foresighting requires academic rigour when collecting data, an understanding of the inherent flaws within each research method, and the ability to process and interpret data to drive usable insights. This last step – interpretation – often gets overlooked. Human observations are coloured by inherent biases, which can (falsely or accurately) be reconfirmed by group think, the echo chamber of concurring ideas generated among members of a family, group, community, industry and association. A well-facilitated Strategic Foresight process will dismantle group think and allow individual members to share valuably divergent views.

This column aims to enhance the Canadian Broadcast and Media industry, present new ideas based on empirical evidence, and challenge fallacies and outdated beliefs. The plan is to excite, stimulate and inspire. In time, we can collectively create the future we would like to see. Together, we will explore new thinking in system-, experience- and social-design, and consider their applications to media. We will identify new trends, and analyze how their implications might affect the future of media consumption.

Are there areas of focus you would like to see? Industry problems that seem unresolvable? Do you have innovation stories you would like to share? I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line at eblais@statsradio.com


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