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Time to get off the beaten track

Reliance on the traditional model of predictive film tracking is beginning to seem more and more like drug dependency — it’s expensive, it can seem impossible to kick, and your addiction to it can lead to some questionable decisions.

Recent box office forecasts run by the big tracking services (you know who they are) should be sending forward thinking studio executives to tracking rehab.  Take some notable recent examples. “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” was expected to open to $16M at the U.S box office based on indications from tracking, yet it delivered a sobering $6.5M. “Sex Tape” was forecast at $30M, but came in at less than half of that. Tracking is inaccurate at the other end of the scale too, with “Guardians Of The Galaxy” smashing through it’s anticipated $60-65M.

Too often I’ve heard the phrase “the tracking wasn’t looking good, so we doubled the TV budget.”   What other industry would accept of margin of error between +/-75%, much less make multi million dollar media buying decisions based on erroneous data? This dramatically impacts movie profitability because you are buying high cost, inefficient media space at the last minute. But until now there hasn’t been a viable alternative, so movie marketers are simply reacting to the single source of information that they and their competitors have access to. It’s time we addressed this.

Audience tracking, as we know it was created in the late 1970’s.  Back then there were a couple of commercial TV stations and one prime time advertising spot in “Charlie’s Angels” or “Dallas” could reach in excess of 20 Million U.S homes. In other words, the movie-marketing juggernaut could be turned fairly quickly, a week or ten days before release.  For today’s marketers that is absolutely no longer the case. It’s challenging to reach that volume of moviegoers, due to the ongoing fragmentation of media and rapidly changing audience behaviour.

Nowadays the release slate is heavily reliant on established and emerging franchises and formats with active, in-built audiences. This provides us with a golden opportunity for real time insight and an on-going and deeper relationship with audiences throughout the production and marketing lifecycle.

Then there’s the timeliness of the data. If I read you a list of 10 movies today and asked you which one you were most likely to see at the weekend your answer would be valid, right now. But tomorrow you might read a comment from a friend on Facebook about another film and change your mind. The sun might come out on Saturday, or the football goes into extra time and your best laid plans to see that movie change completely. The point is, traditional trackers are not only too blunt, but by the time the data reaches studio execs and media managers it’s days old and the audience you’re trying to reach may well have moved on.

Traditional tracking tools report on ‘claimed behaviour’ based on a very limited set of questions that measure ‘awareness’, ‘interest’ and ‘first choice’. They provide little or no context around what’s driving the decision to see one movie over another. Social listening can overcome many of the challenges associated with collecting ‘prompted’ responses. Audiences are freely telling us which movies they want to see, why they want to see them, what they think of our marketing assets, talent line ups and release dates.

The old rules have changed forever, but the measurement tools that drive the decisions around marketing investment have not.

From my perspective I believe there a 4 main problems with traditional audience tracking:

  1. There is a lack of context behind the numbers – an explanation of why audiences prefer one movie over another
  2. Timeliness and relevance of the data
  3. The methodology is based on ‘claimed behaviour’ only
  4. Very high annual cost for Studios and Distributers

In response to these issues, we have developed a more cost effective tracking tool that measures ‘awareness’, ‘intent to view’, ‘sentiment’ and ‘drivers and barriers’ in close to real-time, integrating data from both prompted and unprompted source (bespoke audience panels – not limited to traditional media buying demographics, forums, blogs, news sites and social platforms). We are currently tracking around 120 movies across a 6-month future release window. The tool can be used for both ongoing monitoring as well as keeping you on track with actionable insight around the critical beats in the marketing campaign.

The traditional tracking tools have been running for a long time and have built up a wealth of historical data. Benchmarks are very important as you navigate through a campaign, but they do have a limited shelf life before becoming irrelevant as audience behaviour continues to change to rapidly. We have created our own benchmarking model using social listening data from all major points in the movie marketing lifecycle from every major movie release in the UK and the US over the past 18 months. Analysis of this data has revealed a significant positive correlation between the percentage of ‘intent to view’ conversation and opening weekend box office performance. The data is accurate across most genres in up to 80% of cases.

As someone who started their career in television audience research I fully appreciate that social listening has its limitations. Some segments of the movie going audience are better represented than others and unlike more traditional survey research there isn’t the ability to set controls or quotas on the sample composition. This is why we advocate a ‘joined up’ approach to tracking data – combining data from both prompted (audience panels) and unprompted (social listening) sources to get a more holistic and timely view of audience views and opinions.

Ultimately audience tracking only exists to guide marketing investment decisions, with timely, relevant and accurate information. At Way To Blue we are passionate about creating insight-led communications solutions for our film clients. Insight really is the heart of our business and we believe we have a genuine and viable alternative to the traditional tracking tools on the market, to drive better, more informed decision-making.

Written by Daniel Heale
May 1, 2015