This week we’ll attempt to solve one of the great enigmas of our industry: Who is Mike Bloxham, what in the world has he been talking about for the last few years, and what is he doing now?
I’ve known Mike for nearly a decade, going back to when we worked together on a UK-based product named iSeeTV (yes, everybody confused that with ICTV). And, speaking of confusion with things British, some of you may have, at one point in time, tried to “google” The iTV Doctor without putting my pen-name in quotes. And if you did that during the first year of my column, you probably came up with the lead character on a long-running British television show. Even though “Doctor Who” appears on the BBC (and is now carried on BBC America), the show frequently appears in the same story as BBC’s broadcast competition, the ITV network.
Well, Mike Bloxham is one Brit who acknowledges me as the one true DOCTOR, not some pasty-faced, flop-haired, weak-chinned pretender from the wrong side of the pond!
I spoke with Mike shortly after he and I appeared at the April 19 Viewing + Research Conference in New York, sponsored by Mike’s previous employer, The Center for Media Design at Ball State University.
iTV Doctor: You are an enigmatic character in our small circle of business associates, and everybody reads what you write, but I don’t think many people know much about you. So I thought we could talk a bit about your experience, going back to your days in the UK. But before we get into all that, if you are coming into the New York area, you have a critical decision to make: Yankees or Mets?
Bloxham: Do they play rugby or cricket?
iTV Doctor: It’s kinda like cricket, except the games actually end, eventually.
Bloxham: It’s funny. Some time ago, somebody invited me to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field, and apart from being disappointed by the quality of the beer, and the fact that all you could eat was peanuts or crappy hot dogs, it struck me how similar baseball was to cricket, and why were people so confused about cricket? I mean, baseball is basically cricket with different outfits and a different-shaped place to run. But I have to say I don’t fully understand cricket either. I just enjoy the esthetic–sitting around a village green watching the action with a nice pint of beer in my hand and listening to the birds in the trees.
iTV Doctor: So, Yankees or Mets?
Bloxham: It comes down to who is more likely to become a client.
iTV Doctor: Well, in another similarity to our business, the Yankees have more money than God, but the Mets are hungry.
Bloxham: Well, my real reason for coming to New York (beside the convenient clustering of potential clients in and around television) is the availability of great food!
iTV Doctor: Let’s go back a little bit. Give us a little picture about what your career was like professionally, prior to coming over to Ball State in 2003.
Bloxham: I hesitate to use the word “career,” which connotes a degree of planning and linear progress. At one point I was writing and directing theater, and even appeared as a stand-up comedian [Doctor’s note: Ahhhhh, THAT’s where it comes from!]. Then I went to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, raising and managing sponsorships for brands associated with the orchestra as they toured internationally. Then I worked with a small media sponsorship consultancy, in the UK and Europe, dealing primarily with radio–producing programming for specific brands. And then I set up a consultancy that developed sponsorship strategy for brands, consulting like a management consultancy would. No event management, no vested interests in the final budget, just strategic planning. And then I realized there was a need for research in that space, to determine the impact of those sponsorships. And certainly, there was a school of thought that did not want to have the effectiveness of sponsorships measured–that was primarily a view of those who SOLD the sponsorships. But of course, those who BOUGHT the sponsorships came right along with us. I set up The Sponsorship Research Company–not a terribly creative name, but it said exactly what we did. We were the first company in Europe to do research on the effectiveness of sponsorship of any kind–event, broadcast, cause-related and all the rest. And we really carved out a name as the broadcast sponsorship research people. We were doing work for MTV Europe and other branded networks in the UK and Europe.
And then a few years after that, in 1995, we started to add the Internet to our research agenda. And the level of interest from our clients was such that we saw an entirely new business just based on the Web, and that in turn grew to encapsulate mobile, iTV and other interactive media.
In 2002 I was consulting independently and doing quite a bit of iTV work, and that’s when I met Ball State University. I was speaking at a conference in Amsterdam about some interactive television research we had done as it had rolled out early in the UK. As I was coming off the platform, I was grabbed by a couple of academics from, of all places, Muncie, Indiana! They said they had a very large grant to look at things similar to what I’d been talking about, and perhaps I should come over as a guest speaker.
I found myself getting into a consulting relationship, which turned into a full-time position in this new media center.
iTV Doctor: Give us just a couple of things that you and your team at Ball State did that you are particularly proud of.
Bloxham: The thing that we were best known for in the media world (but perhaps not in the iTV space) is the development of an observational research method, where human observers would shadow individual participants throughout their waking day, logging all their media exposures, what they were doing, where they were doing it, and so on, in TEN-SECOND increments, recorded on a device which refreshed itself automatically to memory in that interval. If you, good Doctor, were recruited for that study, we would agree to a time that we would get with you first thing in the morning. So if you usually wake up at 6:00AM, we’d be there at 6:15! We’d ask a few questions to establish what you’d done in the first 15 minutes of your morning (like listen to the radio while you’re taking a shower). And then the observer would be in the background, monitoring everything you do all day.
iTV Doctor: OK, to put that into perspective, I had made the observation at the Viewing+ conference that I found myself consuming an inordinate amount of content in a given day–radio, television, print, online and more–and in most cases I was completely anonymous to the providers of that content. So you were actually addressing that issue years ago, albeit in a micro research/sample environment rather than a macro audience/brand measurement mode.
Bloxham: Yes, but on a scale large enough to provide real, actionable insights. We were looking at the reality and context of media consumption. We were looking at 17 different media, and 17 different life activities. So we could, for example, say: “Here is an instance where the individual is preparing a dinner, or going out shopping for dinner. Let’s look at the media he or she was exposed to during that day.” That allowed us to put the media and behavior into context to influence messaging strategies and all the rest of that. It is absolutely unique–there is nothing else in the marketplace like that. It’s been referred to as the Gold Standard of cross-platform media research. It really put Ball State on the map in the wider media community. We did some of the most significant media consumption research of recent times with that method and I’m definitely proud of my part in that–and that of my former team.
One of the other things I’m pleased with is the work we did on the interactive screen, with eye tracking. Five or six years ago we built a living room in a TV studio on campus to test the use of eye tracking technology at a 10-foot distance with nothing between the respondent and the screen, to see exactly where people look on the television screen. We did that in advance of true interactivity reaching the TV so we’d be in a position to understand how people actually use different screen designs as they try to navigate and use the screen–so now we’re looking at what they’re doing when they’re interacting with an interface, not simply passive viewing. We started doing this when the concept of the user experience started coming to the television screen, and companies were looking at heavy investments in both technology and man-hours. And they wanted to be able to systematically measure, evaluate and edit their work. To maximize the effect of interface design, based on what they want the viewer/user to do. Dale Herigstad [chief interaction officer, APAC and EMEA, for Possible Worldwide] has always been a great supporter of this approach and, as he says, “the eyes can’t lie.” As beings, we aren’t capable of accurately recording where we look, but with the eye-tracking work, we can take the guesswork out and replace it with hard science. We’ve worked with many of the major networks, and cable brands and even game publishers.
iTV Doctor: So here’s the harder question: You do a study of a specific UI, and report the results. Assuming the client makes the changes, do you do a post-study once they’ve implemented your recommendations?
Bloxham: It’s not always the case, because it depends on the schedule of the company involved. But there are occasions when the client has come back to have us test what they’ve done (usually QUICKLY!) in order to validate those changes. It’s one thing to come up with a solution, it’s another to know that your solution actually works. And a lot of that work yields information which the clients use for subsequent work.
iTV Doctor: You were at Ball State for eight years. And you moved your family from London to Indiana. What was that like?
Bloxham: We were in London, in a two-floor yuppie penthouse apartment overlooking the river Thames, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, living the idyllic urban lifestyle. And then we were in Muncie, Indiana. Now my wife is American, and our son was only three at the time, so their shock wasn’t too great. Of course, people always asked me, “What are you doing in Muncie?” as if I was completely mad. I simply responded I was in the witness protection program, and that effectively ended the conversation.
iTV Doctor: Tell us how you made the decision to go over to Trendline Interactive? They look like they are primarily an email marketing firm.
Bloxham: The background of the folks I’m joining at Trendline is primarily direct marketing and email, but they also encompass research and creative. Basically, Morgan Stewart and Andrew Kordek pulled together what amounts to a kind of “dream team” in addressable messaging. Email features large in that because it’s undeniably the largest, best established and most accountable area of what I think of as the messaging sector. Social and mobile media are a part of that too, and as media and marketing continue to become more integrated, other more traditional media like TV also take their place in the addressable messaging space. After all, what is addressable advertising if not a sub-set of addressable messaging? And with the advent of the second screen in the form of tablets and smart phones, the potential to integrate the skills and disciplines that are behind profitable email campaigns with TV program promotion and brand advertising–through which mix of communication channels is most appropriate–is both huge and exciting.
The folks at Trendline are among the few that get that and so the opportunity to join them to establish a research and consulting practice that will help improve cross-platform messaging strategies and provide opportunities to innovate within the TV space and beyond made the decision to join them a no-brainer. Add that to the fact that we’re already working with clients that are seeking to address the challenges posed by rapid technological change and the need to remain relevant at a time of consumer behavioral change, then it’s easy to see what an insight-driven offering can bring to the space.
iTV Doctor: It goes back to a rule I’ve always followed: Put yourself in your consumer’s shoes–what do you want her to think? And how to you make that happen? There are just lots more ways to do it now.
Bloxham: The potential of delivering that kind of thinking to television networks and other media owners and content providers is huge. If you plan it right from the start, the options for delivering a message through a second-screen or companion device, for example, are wide open. There are any number of ways in which you can tap into people’s passions for programming to both promote the program, extend the life of the program, and engage with the program, as well as creating additional advertising inventory and providing more value to the advertisers.
iTV Doctor: Will we ever see you again, or will you disappear into the Internet?
Bloxham: I’ve always been in the broader spectrum of media, and the interactive television space was a part of that. And one of the main opportunities for Trendline is the 800-lb gorilla which is television–the king of all media (with apologies to Howard Stern). And, to some extent, I’ll probably be more present in the interactive/enhanced arena going forwards. Besides, it’s not about being in one medium or another anymore, it’s about connecting with the audience wherever they are.
I’m going to continue to do what I’ve always enjoyed doing: look at an area which is under-developed, and get in and innovate. It’s what I love, and it’s what I do best.
iTV Doctor: We’ll see you in May at the TV of Tomorrow Show.