If you want to understand the limits of TV ratings points, then consider this classic tidbit from TV lore. In the late 1940s, the water levels in Detroit reservoirs would plummet on Tuesday nights, from 9 to 9:05. Upon investigation, the Detroit authorities figured out why: Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater ended at 9, and "it turned out that everyone waited until the end of 'Texaco Star Theater' before going to the bathroom." (That's a quote from Berle's autobiography.)
It's an old story, one you may have heard it before -- but it's a very important point for understanding just how captive TV audiences were back in the day. Before time-shifted viewing, TV viewers booked their life schedules around the network's content. They engaged with programming with more than just engagement. They had commitment.
That means a lot in terms of metrics. Because in such a highly engaged world, anyone who's seen your ad has probably incorporated your message. And so GRP (Gross Ratings Points) -- a measurement of the size of your audience -- becomes a measurement of the size of the audience that's committed to engaging with your ad.
Clearly, things have changed. TV viewers aren't committing a hallowed half-hour for programming; they're time-shifting to watch around their own schedules (often in small chunks of viewing). Sports, which is perishable content, is a notable exception (which is why Super Bowl advertising still gains top dollar) -- but you pretty much need to go to the movies to find a captive video audience that's even remotely reminiscent of the audiences of classic TV viewership.
Today's viewers also face a ton of distractions. One study finds that as much as 33% of Americans multitask while watching TV, with more than half of those multitaskers surfing the Internet and watching television at once. And as a study from the IPG Media Lab and YuMe reveals, smartphones are an even bigger cause of ad avoidance than DVRs. In case you haven't noticed, a lot of people have smartphones.
Which means that today's viewer has a wild range of engagement levels -- completely riveted to programming at times, completely riveted to text messaging at others. In that kind of environment, impression data alone really doesn't mean much. Understanding ad effectiveness requires layering engagement data into the picture as well.
We're seeing that thinking a lot more from major media players. One recent example: Kantar Media and Milward Brown have announced a new tool for understanding TV ad engagement. The tool asks critical questions like when viewers look at an ad, when they turn away, and the sequence of the ad within the pod. Look for more TV engagement metrics tools to come.
And look for engagement to replace other standard metrics in a lot of other channels, too. Because the discussion about the history of TV engagement isn't just about GRPs. It's about the fact that, in a world of universal Attention Deficit Disorder, intense media clutter, and millions of messages vying for consumers' attention at any one time, the fact that people see something doesn't mean they actually care. Which means that the impression will only lose value as a stand-alone metric as time goes on.
Instead, look for the industry to continue to migrate toward engagement-based thinking. For just one example, consider how Laura Desmond, CEO of Publicis' Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG), has gone on the attack against the traditional system of media mix modeling pp calling instead for a far more nuanced understanding of consumer "experience." SMG's MediaVest has followed suit on that thinking, opening a new human experience practice this month.
When will the impression die completely as a metric? Probably never. But as more opportunities arise for measuring engagement, and as impressions (and even clicks) mean less and less all the time, we'll have to all learn new ways to make our numbers engaging.
I'm sure municipal water departments nationwide will agree.