Arbitron's PPM Plagued By Unanswered Questions

With numerous research questions still answered, planners, buyers and advertisers will likely have to wait for some time before Arbitron makes its Portable Person Meter (PPM) the basis of its radio ratings service.

PPM is a pager-sized devise that is carried by a survey panel picking up special codes in radio, TV and cable broadcasts to create ratings. Arbitron has been testing the PM since late 2000 with initial research in Wilmington, DE. Since then it has expanded to Philadelphia, where a pair of parallel panels are carrying the PPM. Compared to existing methods of measuring media audiences, the PPM has so far reported higher average quarter-hour audiences on a 24-hour day, total-week basis. That has encouraged many into dreams of a day when diaries and set-top meters were as distant a memory as black and white television. Yet a number of questions remain unanswered, resulting a growing call by a number of executives, primarily in radio, for more research and more answers before PPM is further deployed.



One thing that should lie to rest the fears of a few, says Arbitron VP of research and standards Bob Patchen, is that its numbers for primetime TV usage collected from PPM have so far largely mirrored what meters and diaries have found. That should quiet longstanding complaints about whether diary-based measurement is effective. “Far from being condemned, it’s being endorsed,” he said Wednesday at the Advertising Research Foundation’s “Week of Workshops” conference in New York.

Yet Patchen concedes Arbitron has “some detective work” to figure out why morning drive numbers for radio are lower in PPM ratings compared to diaries. Patchen admits its Philadelphia tests have left them with more questions than answers on the most critical daypart for radio. What they do know is that in the 12-17 and 18-34 demos there is no difference between the diary and PPM. They begin to see a difference in the 35-54 cell, and the 55+ demo is where the most pronounced difference between the two is detected. Patchen said frankly, “We don’t yet know what’s going on here.” He says that is among the things Arbitron plans to work on in further field tests.

One unresolved issue has the making of a major stumbling block between the different constituencies that Arbitron serves. Advertisers are likely to push for movement beyond its current quarter hour ratings to a methodology that provides something near to minute-by-minute numbers. One agency research director went so far as to call the current 15-minute break outs “archaic,” yet nearly every radio account executive’s entire sales methodology has been based on that calibration. Patchen says that issue has not been worked out. “There is a lot of debate over whether the industry should go to an average quarter minute. We’ve decided to follow the industry’s lead, so it’s yet to be determined.”

Another issue still unresolved is the role of Nielsen, which may partner with Arbitron to rollout the PPM, as well as whether the device accurately measures Hispanics. Arbitron has agreed with the radio industry’s request for a second PPM market trial in one of the Top 25 Hispanic markets, once the proposed joint venture with Nielsen moves forward. They will also work on improving its lackluster response rates among consumers contacted to carry a PPM devise. In Philadelphia, the diary response rate is 31% compared to 10-15% for PPM. Patchen says increasing response rates “certainly could affect costs.”

An ad hoc group of radio executives has formed to monitor Arbitron’s progress on PPM and call for a go-slow approach to its deployment. Next week that group will meet in Atlanta to hear the latest research. It seems some of their questions will go unanswered for sometime to come.

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