The panelists--featuring top executives from Nielsen Online, comScore, Hitwise and Microsoft, among others--were convened for the Interactive Advertising Bureau's first Audience Measurement Leadership Forum.
The conference was aimed at demystifying Web metrics at a time when marketers and agencies have more ways of measuring online audiences than ever. The downside is that there's more confusion than ever because of the abundance of information available to media buyers from multiple sources that don't always agree.
Panelists underscored the need for greater simplicity and clarity in Web metrics to help draw ad dollars away from traditional media. That means trying to find the Internet equivalent of gross rating points to help transition from TV advertising to emerging media.
"Agencies are still structured for TV," said Konrad Feldman, co-founder and CEO of Quantcast Corp. "We need an equivalent system where people are not just buying potential but buying audiences." Talk of moving toward more uniform Web metrics, however, quickly devolved into a tussle over the long-standing dispute over direct response versus panel-based measurement.
Web publishers have long complained that panel-based ratings issued by services such as Nielsen Online and comScore tend to undercount the actual size of their audiences. They say their own server logs are the most accurate sources of information because they capture all activity on their sites.
Conversely, the panel-based services argue that direct-response methods are flawed because they don't account for actions such as users deleting cookies, which can inflate audience estimates. They also say panels supply crucial demographic information that helps advertisers better understand and target audiences.
To help resolve some of questions over methodology, comScore and Nielsen agreed earlier this year to submit to a third-party audit of their services through the Media Rating Council.
"This is the only medium where we can't go back to an advertiser and tell them who saw their ads," said Manish Bhatia, president, global services and U.S. sales, Nielsen Online. "There's a misperception that server data is a more accurate source of data and it's not. The data set is not good and not complete."
Quantcast's Feldman took issue with Bhatia, emphasizing that online advertising is increasingly shifting toward targeting by behavioral rather than demographic factors. "That's what people want," said Feldman, whose firm combines direct-response and panel-based data to try to come up with the most accurate online audience figures.
Bhatia maintained that the direct-response approach was sufficient for tracking things like tracking click-throughs, but wouldn't be well suited to measuring the effectiveness of new formats like online video ads, which viewers don't necessarily click on. "I actually envision the day when the tools for [tracking] advertising on TV and the Internet will be similar," he said.
Whether Nielsen will end up dominating Internet as it does TV remains to be seen. For now, at least some of the panelists welcomed the emergence of a new batch of competitors in the online metrics industry, such as Quantcast and Hitwise.
"We definitely for the foreseeable future want competition to persist in this industry," said Stephen Kim, director of advertising research for Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions. "So we think that's good, especially as the industry continues to evolve."
In earlier remarks during the conference, Kim said Microsoft's digital ad salespeople rely on panel-based data "because it's the most useful to clients because it's a public methodology." While acknowledging the need for more uniform online standards, he and other panelists said advertisers will ultimately have to get used to absorbing multiple types of data.
"Driving for simplicity is going to be increasingly challenging," said Josh Chasin, chief research officer for comScore.