“Progress” isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when a recession hits, yet that’s often what recessions create.

Historical patterns suggest that recessions have given rise to transformational media, from radio to cable television. If that historical pattern holds up – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t – the current recession’s progeny will be mass acceptance of highly targeted and digital media channels.

For almost 80 years, every major economic crisis to hit the US has vaulted nascent communication mediums into prominence. The Great Depression was the catalyst for radio to evolve as a major communications medium in the 1930s.

Television took its place as the dominant national medium during the recession of the mid-1950s. Cable television moved from hotel rooms to homes during the energy crisis and subsequent recessions of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The internet emerged from the military and academic realms into the mainstream during the 1988 recession. After the 2000 recession, online advertising growth exploded.

What is it about a struggling economy that nurtures new media?

The answer has more to do with human nature than economics, though there is some of that at work too.

People are naturally averse to change, but if they have to change to avoid risk, they will. When consumers are buying and profits are rolling in, corporate marketing organisations have no motive to risk a failed campaign by investing in an emerging medium.

But when a serious recession like the one we’re facing now hits, organisations have to reassess what is and isn’t working in their advertising programmes. John Wannamaker, founder of the US’s department-store industry, once lamented: “Half my advertising dollars work, I just don’t know which half!”

That ambiguity is not an option in today’s new economic reality. Every chief marketing officer understands that effectively engaging consumers who are capable of buying their company’s product is the top priority.

Consumer media consumption trends and technological changes accompanying the current recession portend a much larger shift in the media landscape this time around. Mobile advertising and digital place-based networks, which display content and advertising on screens in public places, are to this era what cable and radio were to years past.

Digital place-based networks turn venues such as elevators, lobbies, airport terminals and taxis, into communication channels for today’s marketers. They enable advertisers to target very specific audience segments with engaging content that draws attention to their advertising message. They are aimed at targeting consumers during the 44 per cent of the day that the consumers are actually awake and out of their homes (source: PQ Media) actively making purchase decisions.

Until recently, the public mainly consumed media in the home during predictable hours, such as evening prime time. Today, market dynamics demonstrate that a big percentage of the public gets its news, information and advertising on the go.

According to a recent BIA/Kelsey forecast, digital out-of-home advertising will grow 13.5 per cent over the next four years, outpacing the 1.4 per cent growth for home-consumed advertising. BIA/Kelsey expects advertisers to spend $2.2bn on digital out-of-home advertising this year and $3.7bn by 2013.

A poor economy, however, is only one factor setting the stage for the emergence of transformational media. The other critical element accompanying the post-recession adoption of new media channels is third-party audience measurement data.

Organisations such as the newspaper industry’s Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) and broadcast’s Nielson and Arbitron ratings provide objective credibility for circulation and viewership claims.

The Out of Home Video Advertising Bureau, the North American industry organisation, has created guidelines for calculating audience sizes of “place based” digital networks, such as lobby and elevator screens.

Digital out-of-home networks are expected to release independent third-party research over the next few quarters and will provide advertisers with the equivalent of the broadcast industry commercial ratings.

Together, those new research sources will provide advertisers with the objective measurement – and the confidence – to consider and evaluate campaigns better on digital out-of-home networks.

Neither digital place-based media nor the recession started the mass media’s market share erosion; audiences have been splintering for years into finer and more elusive pieces.

In the 1940s, viewers would watch televisions through appliance store windows. When the masses could afford televisions, advertisers followed them into their homes.

Today, consumers are on the go and advertisers must engage them out of their homes, on the road, in the air or at the office if they are to prosper in the new economic reality.

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