Commentary

Cross-Platform Measurement And The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

There is a theory in quantum physics that says the very act of observing a particular particle can change its nature. It is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle because a physicist has to make an assumption about what the characteristics of a particle are before observing it. Once observed, the characteristics of that particle change.

With true, integrated cross-platform measurement inching ever closer, will the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle come into play for media?  Will the very act of observing viewers as they migrate across platforms change the nature of media itself?

Many efforts are underway to address the challenges that exist in developing usable metrics for cross-platform measurement. But there is scant analysis as to what impact successful integrated media measurement might have on the evolution of advertising, content and platforms.

The focus of such metrics to date has understandably been on identifying ways for more effective and accurate monetization of content and audiences.  But that, of course, is not the sole purpose of media research.  It also exists to advance understanding into how viewers are shaping platforms and how those platforms are adapting to deliver content. That is because media measurement plays a role in not just establishing “currency,” but in generating the insights that drive media evolution as well.

As for cross-platform measurement, there are multiple initiatives underway designed to develop usable, uniform metrics that might eventually be accepted as an industry standard.  Programs by the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement (CIMM) and by 3Ms (Making Measurement Make Sense), for example, are two of the most notable. Though, in absence of an already established industry standard metric, many networks are also developing their own models.

What we ultimately accept as the standard metric for cross-platform measurement will come to define what is most important about those platforms. As a result, future efforts to evolve or enhance integrated media will be geared toward advancing the efficiency of that key metric.

CIMM, for example, is placing emphasis on the value of underlying media impressions in cross-platform media. They see this as a complementary tool for other industry initiatives that will help in calibration of the estimate of audience impressions, based upon actual exposure to media and the length of duration of exposure.

The 3Ms, on the other hand, is looking to define “viewable impressions” as compared to “served impressions” to make sure impressions are not over counted, with a goal of moving online advertising from a currency of gross add impressions to targeted audience impressions defined by reach and frequency of these exposures.

The difference is important.  

If the CIMM “microscope” is used to observe viewing behavior, the relative value of a media impression itself will become of central importance — even when just used as a complementary tool. This places the emphasis for media evolution on how to increase that value — and all subsequent content and platform development efforts would feel the pressure to accomplish that end. 

Depending upon how that “value” is defined, a shift in emphasis could occur that moves away from delivery of more engaging content to one of delivering a more conducive environment for branded messages.  That is, platform and content could evolve from being primarily audience delivery vehicles to becoming primarily branded message enhancement vehicles instead.

Alternatively, by using the 3M observation philosophy, an emphasis might be placed on accuracy in gauging actual impressions.  In this view, exposure is the most important factor.  Therefore, we can argue that a path of development for platform and content might evolve that enables and affords greater branded message exposure – not necessarily enhancement of the value of that exposure.  This could lead to a very different evolution, one that favors multiple platforms, perhaps even at the expense of the quality of each branded message engagement.

Of course, these are but two approaches.  The great advantage within the digital realm is that unlike traditional TV, there are various measures that could supplement basic impression counts, such as clickstream data and social monitoring.

The inherent challenge in impression-centric approaches then is that the value and impact of impressions across platforms is not consistent. The impression delivered on TV, for example, is very different from the impression delivered on a mobile device. The platforms are used differently, at different times, and generate much different types of emotional engagement.

The other challenge is that this type of approach provides an incentive to make platforms and content subservient to impressions.  With this, the pressure would be on to push innovations that better deliver impressions. But clearly, the technology trend has been toward making possible better content delivery.  And better content delivery does not necessarily mean or result in better impression delivery.

The one true constant, certainly, is the audience. Many argue that this is the “unit” that must be at the center of any adopted metric for cross-platform measurement.  The rationale being that ultimately it is the viewer that we are attempting to track as they migrate from platform to platform.  

This is true, but in placing an emphasis on the viewer, are we then, de-valuing the role of the platform?  That is, if tracking the viewer across platforms and understanding their aggregate viewing habits is what is important, then does the platform that they are using to view that content become less important to the equation?

In such a scenario, would cross-platform measurement that places the audience as the core unit actually further hasten the consolidation of a multi-screen platform universe- TV, computer, mobile —  into one screen — mobile?  I audience is truly what is important, then is where that impression is recorded less important? Would it actually benefit the delivery of branded messages to push toward a one-screen world with mobile being that one screen?

There are many factors, including convenience of different devices, ad message and content environment, that will impact the evolution of media and platforms.

But if the reality of an audience centric measurement pushing to a one-screen world were to come true, then observation of cross-platform media would have changed the nature of the subject itself — just as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle theorizes — by hastening the demise of multiple screens and bringing us back to a one-platform environment.  

And that would be a world, which would have no need for cross-platform measurement in the first place.

But the emergence of different approaches now is indicative of one certainty: We are facing a more complex future where media will become less dependent on a single ratings measurement system. This will increasingly require us to form judgments about how different metrics fit together to tell the whole story — and how those metrics will change the very media they were designed to measure.

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1 comment about "Cross-Platform Measurement And The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle".
  1. Joseph Mccallion from Media Monitors , October 24, 2012 at 2:20 p.m.
    Congratulations Terry on a very interesting article. Although, I was not an engineer, the practicality of your approach should make sense to many agency folk.