Baby Steps

Advertising on the Internet is exploding. Assuming you accept that the Internet is going to be the core infrastructure for any type of content, I am sure you can see the urgency of the challenge: to develop an effective metric of audience consumption in an online world. Advertisers are expecting more accountability online and there is increasing demand for an independent third-party to verify results. But you can't have accountability, and there is no value in audits, if one place measures in apples and the other in bananas.

As Josh Chasin said in a previous week's Metrics Insider, "one of the consequences of being the most measurable medium is that the Internet ends up as the medium with the most measures." As a trained accountant, I can understand what make a useful measurement system. With all these competing systems, I think we need to take a step back, and actually ask ourselves: why are we measuring in the first place?

A measurement system needs a purpose. All the different tools at our disposal, which allow us to measure where consumers clicked on a page, at what point they stopped watching a video, or how they otherwise engaged with the content -- might make for great techniques if you are a seller of an analytics package competing on features. But as an industry, we need to stop being distracted by what we can do, and focus more on what we need to do.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think we can divide measurement into two distinct camps: measurement for a return on investment, and measurement for evaluation of effectiveness. The first is principally about making money -- online advertisers want to measure their campaigns, and compare networks, platforms and destinations with a common scale. The latter, is more about the feedback loop --usability testing, reactions to new features, and the like.

We need to focus our attention on the first type of metric: return on investment. Measurement standards so that publishers can compare their offerings to competing services for advertising dollars require consistency (another key component for a measurement system). Usability testing arguably does not have such a need for comparability.

Alas, here we come to another problem: Our measurement systems are flawed. Ajax broke the pageview model of impressions; the one billion-dollar practice of click fraud is the dirty big secret of pay-for-performance advertising; and the other major metric of using unique visitors (through cookies) is proving inaccurate.

Additionally, the digital world is now forcing us to rethink measurement for comparability, with products that used to be in a class of their own, now broadly known as "information" as we remove them of their physical medium. Newspapers are becoming information companies; television networks are now content creators; and both these traditional industries are not only now directly comparable, but are also fighting against the new-media forms like blogs, podcasts, and citizen journalism.

Indeed, I have raised a lot more questions than answers in this column. I look forward to exploring these themes in future and more -- if you think I am touching on what we should be thinking about. If we are pioneering new measurement systems, let's learn from the past -- but also not forget: We need to start from the basics.

Tags: metrics
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