The Digital Signage Insider

The captive audience conundrum

Published on: 0000-00-00

I didn't have the opportunity to attend the In-Store Marketing Summit last month, but in the course of reading a brief summary of the event over at ISMI's site, I came across one quote that really struck a chord. Commenting on the direction that in-store media has taken of late, Supervalu's Jeff Weidauer said, "The term 'captive audience' needs to be deleted from our vocabulary. There's no such thing. If you think a customer in our store is 'captive' because she can't turn off that TV, wave goodbye as she walks out and goes someplace else where they're not trying to force-feed her something." Thinking about the in-store audience in this context, retail media professionals -- and especially those involved with at-retail marketing and advertising -- are faced with the challenge of meeting the business goals of their media project without "force-feeding" shoppers or otherwise compelling them to go elsewhere. This raises an interesting question: should we even be thinking of shoppers as an "audience" in the first place?

For any company considering a retail media project, defining and understanding the audience should be one of the first steps in the process. However, I still get the feeling that it's frequently overlooked. Many people simply assume that a store full of people can automatically be deemed an "audience," and then make inferences and assumptions based on how a typical audience might be expected to behave. Unfortunately, a lot of these assumptions break down in mass-market retail environments that are designed to promote shopping as the primary task. (I'm leaving out concept and brand experience stores, since these are still pretty rare.) Consequently, many retail media projects get implemented the wrong way: at best, they're less effective than they could be, and at worst, they're genuinely annoying to customers.

Third-party media providers should be especially cognizant of who their audience is on the retail floor. New media firms with one or two digital signage networks under their belt might be tempted to start making generalizations about the way retail shoppers function in an arbitrary store environment, but this is a dangerous mode of thinking. Even though Best Buy, CompUSA and Wal-Mart have some product overlap, consumers in each of these stores behave differently, even when shopping for the same product. It's a result of the differences between the store environments themselves -- everything from signage to floor plan to the other shoppers wandering around will have an impact on personal behavior. It's thus extremely important to identify those people who are most familiar with the stores and their customers, and get them involved in your retail media project from the start. This is probably a good idea not just for digital signage, but for static posters and POP displays as well.

Aside from traditional audience composition characteristics and simple demographic information, the retail media specialist also has to look at other factors. For instance, consider the structure of the typical shopping trip: do customers typically visit to browse or to make a specific purchase, are their purchases most likely to be need-based or want-based, and how frequently will these shoppers return to the store in the future? These kinds of questions help determine how cohesive the group of people inside the store might be, again not from a demographic perspective, but from a psychological and modal perspective. Compare this with another common "captive" venue: movie theaters. It's much easier to call the people sitting in a movie theater an audience. They've all just paid $10 to sit down and watch a movie (except for those people in the last few rows: we know what you've been doing back there). Their expectations, intent and immediate need states are relatively the same. They're primed to receive whatever content is going to be displayed for them. It's thus reasonable to apply the "audience" stamp and treat them as such. But in a retail store, all of these things can be different from shopper to shopper, so deciding whether to call them an "audience" is a lot harder.

So if and when shoppers can be considered an audience, is it ever safe to call them "captive"? The conditions are different for retail, hospitality, health care and so on, but in each case there are fundamental characteristics for both the venue and the patron that will impact that decision. Next week, we'll take a look at some of the major hotbeds of activity in the digital signage space to see whether it's ever appropriate to call the audience "captive."

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