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Leaning towards a better way to gauge consumer media interaction

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The media business is long overdue to replace the prevailing framework we use to describe consumer interaction with content with one that better reflects current devices and activities.

The current lean-forward, lean-back paradigm, conceived by Jakob Nielsen, was popularized around 2008 and yet (amazingly) it’s already showing its age. Consider that it predates the widespread use of touchscreen smartphones, the current dominance of tablets — the entire second screen phenomena — and even the widespread adoption of on-demand streaming media services like Netflix and Spotify. The world has turned in the past 5 years, and yet this framework remains a popular if not standard convention for analyzing data consumption in the media business.

It’s time advertisers, marketers and content creators had a more accurate, more nuanced and granular system to describe how consumers interact with their digital content. The result would offer better opportunities for everything from UX design to monetization and marketing.

Following is a two-fold system that, unlike the lean forward/back shorthand, breaks apart the physical and mental attributes involved when we consume content. When we analyze them this way in their component parts, a clearer, more targetable picture of consumer interaction emerges.

Body: Physical attributes

When we interact with today’s four major screen types — TV, PC, mobile, and tablets — we exhibit common physical attributes along two dimensions: session length (how long we view) and physical posture (literally). Other physical variables, such as screen size, viewing distance, and viewing environment (home, office, transit) highly correlate to those two.

In the below grid, PC, TV, and mobile can be seen to occupy mostly discrete quadrants. However the newest platform, tablets, overlaps all of them and so is the most versatile. Its portability, screen size, and reliance on a large number of native apps have made it a viable stand-in for many users for all of the others. This flexibility is reflected in the continued, massive growth in tablet shipments, which IDC expects will exceed total PC shipments in 2015.

Physical attributes

Note: The Session and Posture dimensions above, and the corresponding ones in the below chart, live on a spectrum. The items plotted on the grids are intended to be directionally accurate.

Mind: Engagement style

A year ago, software designer Craig Will proposed a different approach to succeed Nielsen’s Lean Forward/Back paradigm which he thought too simplistic and vague. He instead divided engagement style into absorption and activity levels. Think of absorption as representing retention resulting from focus, while activity is the frequency of user input.

The below table plots the most common consumer digital media tasks on an absorption — activity grid.

Engagement style

Like the Physical Attributes grid, certain tasks gravitate toward their own specific quadrants. For instance Recommendations (such as Netflix’s automated viewing suggestions), often appear by default for users and so are a Low Activity experience. But then another form of discovery, search, is a far more active endeavor. Communication about and curation of content ranges from creating music playlists and reviewing books to tweeting about TV shows and “liking” movies. These activities require our full, albeit fleeting, attention.

Consumption — the task of reading, watching, listening, and playing — demands various degrees of engagement, depending on the content and context.


Taken together, these two interaction models present a far more complete and real world accounting for how consumers interact with their media. Employing it could help the industry address some of its most stubborn problems. Here are just a few examples.

The connected-TV movement, exemplified by the variable smart TVs and Google’s recent entry, Chromecast, is poised to deliver a far greater amount of Web-native content to television sets. The long-anticipated Web invasion of the living room will require though that content and its design are optimized for the Physical Attributes above.

Charging consumers for many forms of digital content still continues to be difficult as well. Indeed, books and video games, as illustrated in the above grid, are digital content types consumers value enough to purchase.

Marketers seeking to reach highly engaged consumers are well advised to direct their advertising dollars to the upper right quadrant of the Engagement Style grid. For example, fans watching live sports on television and calling up stats on a second-screen iPad app are a highly valued advertising target.

This proposed model describes today’s digital media landscape, but of course we are still crossing over from our all-analog past to the all-digital future, when consumers will be able to access any content on any device, anywhere, at any time.

David Justus is a principal at, a digital media consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @ContentCurrents.

13 Responses to “Leaning towards a better way to gauge consumer media interaction”

  1. Interesting..and enjoying getting my head around it–although I assure you we were talking about lean forward/lean back as early as 1999 here in the UK.

    Also, as perhaps opposed to the US, time shifting of TV is not as prevalent; Ofcom reports this summer that “Live TV accounted for 90% of all viewing in 2012.”

    But I challenge the “Marketers seeking to reach highly engaged consumers…” We’ve found success in advertising on TV at times when the content is “reassuringly shite.” It’s un-engaged wallpaper TV that we (repeatedly) pitch our messaging through to a bored but busy homemaker that’s furthered our growth to a top 3 brand in a very competitive marketplace.

    • Content Currents

      Alex – Thank you for your comment. As you point out, advertisers continue to spend billions of dollars on 30-second spots on linear television. When the viewer is engaged, the model would place her in the high absorption / low activity quadrant. In this case, I suspect “ad recall” and other metrics favored by advertisers would be high. Those metrics, I believe, would be even higher when activity levels are high resulting from interactive television features, such as RFI, telescoping, and polling. This would place the viewer in the top right quadrant.

  2. Content Currents

    Thanks, Gretchen. Consumers likely place a higher value on high absorption content and are therefore more likely to pay for it. E.g. books, video games. For the purchase of digital content today, our value calculations are rooted in experiences with analog versions. i.e. years of reading physical books inform our expectations for ebooks. Future generations will know only digital goods and their formats will evolve. E.g. Kindle Singles. So future content marketers may need to articulate for purchasers what they can expect in terms of absorption and activity.

  3. gretchen grant

    I wonder if consumers might pay for some content that they currently consumer for free, if marketers did a better job of reflecting consumers’ engagement style in their marketing messages. Are there opportunities to charge for high activity/high absorption content that marketers are missing now?

  4. David, I love this thinking.
    It gets us a step closer to the ability to “understand, map and manipulate” consumers closer to a transaction. From a commercial viewpoint, it is the beginning of some new marketing appoaches aligned with natual consumer behavior (if one can call 2 or 3 screens burning at one time natural. Hee hee.)

  5. Steve Goldberg

    David: Interesting thoughts and certainly helpful for marketers and content creators struggling with the multi-screen environment. However, ultimately, I think that we will find, in the more long term future, that the taxonomy of body language and engagement are what change versus the way we use the terms or characterize the form factor. In the end, we will find new words for engagement, etc that will take over. The medium (and the form) define the experience not the other way around. Just a decade ago no one “searched” for information. They researched. A small example. But….

    • Content Currents

      Steve, here’s a great illustration of your point. This fall Steelcase will introduce a new chair, the Gesture, after identifying nine new workplace postures (“The Multi-Device,” “The Text,” “The Swipe,” “The Strunch,” etc.) that emerged from use of new technologies (

  6. Content Currents

    Thanks, Jeff. This is an interesting content characteristic.

    I think we consume content either in real-time or on a time-shifted basis. Most content we consume today (books, movies, magazines, and music–in analog and digital form) is time-shifted, meaning we don’t read/listen/watch as the content creator makes it. We watch sports, breaking news, and big entertainment events (e.g. Academy Awards) in real time.

    Whether we consume content in real-time or on a time-shifted basis influences the Engagement Style. If we care enough about the content to watch it live, the Absorption rate will be generally high. The Activity level for real-time content varies. Many of us sat still, with eyes glued to the television set, when watching live reports about Hurricane Sandy. Real-time content may also be consumed in a high-activity manner. Sports, breaking news, and big entertainment events, I think, lend themselves to great second-screen experiences, which create high-activity levels. In the article, I give a sports example. Another example is a personal one. When I watched the most recent presidential debates on TV, I simultaneously held my iPad and clicked on tweets published by humorists and pundits I like.

    Popular pre-recorded television shows, like the season premiere of Homeland, will attract many loyal viewers who will watch at the original air date and time. Although the content is pre-recorded, I think of this being akin to a live, big entertainment event like the Academy Awards. As subscription-on-demand (e.g. Netflx) and download-to-own (e.g. iTunes) services grow in popularity, my sense is that fewer and fewer hours of television will be watched this way.

  7. This is a helpful step forward, but there is another dimension entirely. Real-time, live content (e.g., news, sports, broadcast radio, Twitter) vs. archived content (e.g., movies, TV drama, books). Not sure this falls comfortably within either the activity-absorption or posture-session model.

    • Content Currents

      If and when consumers adopt each of these new platforms, do you think the proposed model will be valid?

      The model is intended to explain consumer interaction with content. Two of the platforms you mention–glasses and smartwatches–are described by the leading makers, Google and Pebble, respectively, as primarily communications devices. Nonetheless, let’s see how the model holds up.

      I suspect Google Glasses (and I tried them only once briefly) will occupy the same Physical Attributes quadrant as Mobile. The most common tasks one performs with Google Glass (as described by Google involve communications and search, which appear in the upper right quadrant of the Engagement Style grid. Time will tell what applications the Glass Collective ( and others will introduce.

      Pebble, based on its own description (, would occupy the same Physical Attributes and Engagement Style quadrants as Google Glass. Like Google Glass, Pebble welcomes custom applications (

      Do you agree with the above? What about the other platforms you mention: screens integrated with cars and home appliances? (I’m less familiar with them.)

  8. Steve Ardire

    > Marketers seeking to reach highly engaged consumers are well advised to direct their advertising dollars to the upper right quadrant of the Engagement Style grid.

    Yup High Activity High Absorption is Marketers wet dream ;-)