Todd Cunningham: Investing in media measurement has power to be transformative

Journalism / Article

In April, the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center announced the launch of a groundbreaking project to discover better ways to understand how media influences people. Supported by $3.35 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Knight Foundation, the Media Impact Project welcomed its first director this week.

As the lead, Todd Cunningham will introduce a new perspective to the project—melding his 15-year market research career at Viacom, the private media conglomerate, with an academic team of analytics experts and data specialists, as well as leading social change makers.

According to Cunningham, the diverse group does have one thing in common: They all believe that investing in media measurement has the power to be “transformative.”

Under Cunningham’s direction, the Media Impact Project will shift into high gear, with “the potential to revolutionize the field” and help social change organizations measure their impact.

We talked with Cunningham about the Media Impact Project and what he expects to bring to the mix.

You worked at Viacom for many years focusing on ways to quantify audience engagement. What did you learn about engagement that you can put to work on behalf of the Media Impact Project?

Gaining a complete understanding of the emotional and behavioral connections that audiences form with video and other content is hard to do. But three lessons do come to mind that can be put to work immediately when measuring engagement:

  • Engagement is actually the first point of participation; it’s not the end game. An essential part of measuring media impact, based on my experience, is discovering what sparks degrees of engagement; of course, when we chart related behavioral changes over time, this becomes even more valuable.  MIP checklist:  on it!
  • Not all content is socially equal. I see assumptions being made all the time that all content is shareable. Guess what, it’s not.  Finding out what is and isn’t socially compelling and why is in short supply – qualitative research is a critical to measuring engagement that is many overlook

Share the work, share the work, share the work:  The more people in your organization who understand how engagement gets measured, the better.  Moving the measurement industry toward a greater sense of openness regarding approach and insights is a key goal of the Media Impact Project.

How does this project differ from the work that you did at Viacom?

I did most of my work at Viacom as part of an internal team of researchers. I’m proud of that work and to have been part of that team. We were focused on addressing a business need or specific questions posed inside the company. Ultimately, the process culminated in a series of internal presentations about those findings.

The Media Impact Project, on the other hand, faces outward. It involves collaboration with what we refer to as our ‘intelligence network’ of bright minds and practitioners across sectors who understand social impact from a range of perspectives. The goal here is to create a living body of knowledge that will be open and accessible to all.

What in particular about the Media Impact Project piqued your interest? What do you find most compelling about the project?

Having been at Viacom, which is also a Gates Foundation grantee, I witnessed first-hand what it’s like to juggle the priorities of the program as well as my regular ‘day job.’ So, I felt that I had a good vantage point to anticipate some of the challenges we might face in getting this effort up and running.  Measuring how media influences the ways people think, act and contribute to broader social changes is something with which we all struggle.  The Media Impact Project is positioned to meet this challenge; I believe it and has the potential to play a meaningful role in building froma  body of smart measurement work that’s gone before it and I wanted to be a part of that.

There are many compelling things about the Media Impact Project, but if I have to name one, I would say: the commitment and belief of all partners in the project that strategic investments in media measurement have the potential to be transformative.  It’s incredibly inspiring and important to have that level of support as we chart a new path for effective media measurement.

Why do you think that media impact measurement is important to reexamine  in our current media landscape?

The number of devices and platforms that allow us to experience and socialize around media continue to grow. One of the consequences is that there is now even more data about people’s preferences and their consumption habits. Leveraging this information to improve how we engage audiences and grow awareness that is likely to lead to positive social action is relatively unchartered territory.

With that reality as a backdrop, our Media Impact Project team will help more and more organizations to answer the question, How do we use media to prompt social action, and then make that the norm?

Finally, it is vitally important for journalists, news and other organizations to learn to measure engagement and impact in the way that works best for their organization. How to do that should not be the main thing that keeps them up at night. We can lessen that worry.

What will be your first order of business in your new role?

Building a strong team of impact researchers is Job 1; Job 1a includes:

  • Developing and testing new tools and methods for measuring media impact.
  • Creating a data analytics center to collect and analyze diverse data streams related to how people engage with media.
  • Collecting and sharing best practices in understanding shifts in people’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to their engagement with media.
  • Providing technical assistance to media organizations to improve their practices.

The launch of the Media Impact Project  is just the beginning. I’m assembling a team of social and behavioral scientists, analytics experts, journalists and others to help us move forward plus building a number  of strategic partnerships for our work.

I’m looking forward to working with more of Knight’s grantees and the people who read this blog. Thank you.