Over the Christmas period I finally managed to get around to working through some of my “to be read when I have a quiet moment” pile of documents. You know the sort; the reports, pieces of research, trade journals and so on that you are sent in the post and that really should read to keep up with trends and developments, but which more often than not sit in a pile staring accusingly at you.

And here’s the thing. When I got around the making the effort, I found some real gems among that slightly dusty pile, which gave me a host of thoughts for future big ideas.

One piece of research which really struck me was Deloitte’s Media Predictions Report (2010, I’m ashamed to say…). One of the main findings of that research was quite challenging and I think has implications for all sorts of consumer-facing businesses.

The way we consume media has changed radically. Instead of three to four channels and the TV Times to guide our viewing, we can watch a plethora of channels, as we like and when we like. Sky Plus and other such services mean that we can record shows and watch them at our convenience; log a whole series with the push of one button; and essentially manage our TV viewing experience to suit our individual tastes.

What Deloitte found – which is fascinating – is that whilst many people do use Sky Plus and other “non-linear” services, as they call it in the trade – most consumers of content still, to quote the report “remain happily beholden to the schedule, rather than resentful…..linear is likely to remain dominant not just in 2010 but for many years to come.”

I found this interesting in many ways. Firstly it tells us that, in essence, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. We now have the technology to watch whatever TV we like whenever we like, but at the moment the majority of people don’t do so. As the report says, “The behaviours of early adopters do not necessarily become mainstream”.

In addition – and in a way even more interesting – is the fact that although they only moderately use these technologies, people are generally happy to pay for them. As the report also observes, “Consumers appear quite content to purchase devices and subscribe to services that they then hardly ever use.”

So what does that means for us, business owners and providers of services or products? I think these trends really can teach us a few useful things. One is that our customers are ultimately the arbiters of how they spend their time and how quickly they adopt something new – whether it be technology or a change to a product they’ve grown used to. We can’t force them however improved we think our new way might be. We need to do it gradually and with sensitivity.

And let’s face it, when you’re dealing with something as established as the television schedule, it’s about more than clever technology. It’s about emotion. People associate Coronation Street at 7.30pm with time for their family, with cups of tea, with getting home from work and with relaxing. As businesses, we need to learn to understand the emotional ties and associations which our products have for our customers as well as the external benefits that we can clearly see certain add-on whistles and bells will bring for them.

So if that’s the case, then to use another cliché, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Why should we ever bother to innovate or develop our products if customers are happy with what they’ve got? We’d all be sitting around campfires hunting bison with clubs. Well here’s the flipside and that comes in Deloitte’s observation that many people seem content to pay for this technology although they hardly use it. Why is that?

Ultimately, because consumers are just fundamentally sensible, I think. They can see the benefits in something like Sky Plus and they use it to improve their lives as and when they need it. It’s not that they’re afraid of it, or can’t use it, because they do use it. There are times when it’s absolutely great – when they’re on holiday, when they are following a series, when their kids disrupt their favourite programme and they can stick it onto record and go and sort out the crisis in hand.

Consumers are making it work in the way they want it to work – which, interestingly, doesn’t seem to correlate to the grand view that the boffins had when they developed these non-linear technologies. It doesn’t mean the technologies aren’t half useful though!

Objectively anyone can see that in an ideal world, it would be wonderful to be able to watch all the programmes we want to watch in the order in which we want to watch them – which is to some extent what something like Sky Plus offers. So why don’t people use it like that? Because we consumers know that the schedule takes the load away from us in terms of making constant, half hourly decisions about what we watch (who needs that pressure?) and it lends familiarity and emotional comfort to our lives and to our experiences. But we also know that technologies such as Sky Plus can give extra benefits, which are still worth paying for.

So for us, as businesses, we need to recognize that we can’t necessarily force something on our customers in the way we want them to digest it. It may turn out that they find a different way of using our product, a different way of interacting with it, which doesn’t make it any the less valuable but which may not fit with our original concept. And one of the biggest dangers in business is to be inflexible. Have an idea, have a goal, but if things are moving in a different direction then don’t be blind to those opportunities. Talk to your customers, work out what makes them tick, delve into their emotional connections as well as the more hard-nosed practical benefits your product or service may bring them.

And then, you may find that they provide far more to help to you in developing your business, because they are the ones who actually spend money to use your service.

Perhaps this was a strange corollary to take from the Deloitte Report, but it really did strike me that we can all learn something from this trend. Whilst not a consumer backlash in any sense, there is something of the “power to the people” in this pattern which can teach us all as business owners about listening to our customers and learning from their behaviours and choices.

Click the following link to see the report: http://www.deloitte.com/tmtpredictions2010

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses. www.nabcommunications.co.uk