Content Strategy on a massive, revenue-generating scale: How 30 Rock’s research jokes reflect real-life

Understanding how to engage consumers nationwide, like 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy

This post has been edited, as of July 2015.*

I am lucky.

While it’s becoming cool to predict that this is finally “The Year of the Customer”, I got to work for one of the most consumer-oriented businesses in my country. In an industry that caters to its target market…to a fault, sometimes — media.

I mean that in situations where they need to choose — media companies, like NBC, will tend to prioritize the target market rather than push for a groundbreaking offering which might not result in sales.

And the best thing that illustrates how this works — is NBC’s 30 Rock.

30 Rock is an NBC sitcom depicting Liz Lemon’s life and work as a variety show producer, working for Jack Donaghy — a top boss of on-screen media network “NBC”. In it, you have a behind-the-scenes peek into what life is like for a big TV brand.

Content Strategy ‘00s, or using research to impact the creation of content

Have you seen 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy ask the The Girly Show production team to make changes based on focus groups? For me, that was “content strategy” before I learned about the phrase “content strategy”.

I found those jokes so real because I was a research analyst in an emerging market media conglomerate — there was no “content strategy” job in 2007. But my job was to analyze, plan and help iterate content (from tone, to topics and platform or distribution strategy) to achieve business objectives.

NBC’s 30 Rock screen capture image from

NBC’s 30 Rock screen capture image from

NBC’s 30 Rock screen capture image from

Following the same vein of Kristina Halvorson and Mashable’s advice that “consumers are the real experts; so don’t listen to other marketers”, TV networks, like NBC, have been applying consumer-driven creative for years. Probably because they’ve always been content businesses. This just means they make the most money when it churns out the most engaging content.

They can’t afford to not be engaging.

Research for effective content would mean: qualitative projects and audience measurement for optimizing personalities’ careers, improving “content” (Particularly — the plot, character, relevance or emotional delivery), determining whether the ROI of launching particular pieces of content would be worth the expense of making it, and my favorite among these favorites: facilitating business models (Is there a way to continue making money when the Internet gives everything away?).

Content research answers these questions, not through marketing best practice — we didn’t read “How to create great content” or take courses on Content Strategy. Decisions were based on actual, constantly updated consumer data and business assessment.

What it looks like when a company invests in Consumer Experience

I now realize that reeeeally stable TV networks, like the “NBC” on 30 Rock, are human-centered* companies.

* For those who are fans of Huge, the digital agency — you can look at the parameters of User-Centered Management, established by Aaron Shapiro, CEO of Huge, in his book “Users, Not Customers”.

Cheesy quote brought to you by tumblr and InspirationBoost

Cheesy quote brought to you by tumblr and InspirationBoost

And, I can say this frankly. Because, there is one sure sign of a company’s priorities: what it devotes resources to.

You can’t say you prioritize something if you aren’t devoting resources to it.

NBC’s 30 Rock screen capture, Image from

NBC’s 30 Rock screen capture, Image from

Jack Donaghy’s “General Electric-NBC” made decisions based on what consumers are looking for. Based on ratings and qualitative research. Very similar to real-life NBC Universal (which has its own research division, with periodic publicly shared learnings that help them make decisions).

If a company says it’s “user-centered” or “customer-centered” or has “user-centered design”, but doesn’t allot budget and embed actual consumer conversation in its workflow, you better wonder what they mean.
Embedding consumer insight in the decision-making

I have worked for and with brands that house and manage internal research agencies. The most sophisticated one being equipped with its own statistics specialists, is headed by a statistician, and over half of that office is qualitative research analysts, like me.

Did you think networks like NBC Universal create content and personalities that are left to the expertise and opinion of creative genius alone?

Well, no. It’s strategic; and based on constantly updated consumer insight, that supports the directors, writers, talent managers and business unit heads, which NBC Universal is transparent about.

Next time you complain about annoying things on a TV show. Know that that is probably 70–80% on purpose.

NBC’s 30 Rock screen captures, image from

NBC’s 30 Rock screen captures, image from

Research Effectiveness: Or how to judge whether the research works

I was lucky to work with someone who is, to my knowledge, and I apologize to all the other researchers I worked with — the most brilliant researcher I know. Also, probably the scariest, because of that intelligence.

I learned the true potential of research from her. And what became my standard for excellent data analysis: The ability to predict success.

Or failure, for that matter.

It isn’t enough to be accurate, there’s a need to be accurate about particular things

We were trained to specialize in our own “sub-concentration”.

Like how Liz Lemon leads a particular genre of shows, one of my mine was predicting the performance of new programs. Also, being the go-to researcher of the brand impact of a personality’s behavior. Also, improving variety show stars and segments. Another fun specialization was Japanese anime.

The one that pretty much changed the course of my job (i.e. I eventually shifted to product development) was finding what makes content platforms tick — TV vs. Radio vs. Movies. That was fun.

30 Rock’s Liz lemon meme from

30 Rock’s Liz lemon meme from

Not a lot of people like talking to people to analyze them day-in and day-out and measure the effects. Hence a high drop-off rate at the 6-month mark in research agencies.

Don’t be the red balloon


Screen capture of “The Red Balloon” — from

Research people get told and trained to “not want to be red balloons”. Meaning, research professionals should facilitate and be excellent behind-the-scenes workers, and should not intend to steal the thunder of creators and decision-makers. Which is something you don’t mind as a researcher, anyway.

I feel the need to say this and talk about this type of research work though, because there aren’t a lot of people who dedicated years and much effort to data-driven content on a massive national scale, with very real financial and revenue consequences. Analysts are usually expected to deal with finances, and FMCG sales, but not content. Which 30 Rock repeatedly shows the value of, even as jokes.

I think the most valuable part of that sentence is “consequences”. Whatever research sub-specialty you make work in. Can you imagine the pressure NBC Universal’s researchers are under every time The Voice doesn’t beat American Idol’s ratings?

When the research you do spells the difference between continuing or ending someone’s highly visible, revenue-generating career, you better make sure you do it well.

Think of what you’re willing to give, for legitimate content strategy

That last TV show that trended on Twitter, that hot young personality brands can’t get enough of, that newscaster. Those are the results of regular data analysis given to talent managers and creative professionals, who are also trained in interpreting it.

Media businesses all over the world are too…challenged (by piracy, advertising model changes, competition) to be left to chance and creative vision alone. That’s why it’s backed by data.

And, now that brands are realizing that they need to become publishers as well, or that marketing is now talking about “content” — operations like these become necessary.

The subliminal lesson: content that makes women laugh year-to-year – like 30 Rock – doesn’t happen overnight, and doesn’t happen without research analysis.

30 Rock screen capture, image from

30 ROCK — Episode 704 — Pictured: Tina Fey as Liz Lemon — (Photo by: Ali Goldstein/NBC)

*This post was edited to protect the identities of my friends and colleagues, and represent a more general point-of-view rather than personal experience.


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