Impressions Are Becoming Less Impressive (A Story Of GRP)

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 Theaterended 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.

6 comments about "Impressions Are Becoming Less Impressive (A Story Of GRP)".
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  1. Emo Reyna from HHS&B, June 28, 2011 at 12:28 p.m.

    Great post!

  2. Srinivas Vadlamani from Merkle, June 28, 2011 at 1:22 p.m.

    I think you really nailed it when you said "the fact that people see something doesn't mean they actually care". A lot of attribution models out there in the market still consider view-thru (last, first etc.) as very important factors. I look forward to an article with more details around "Consumer experience" soon!

  3. Tim Marklein from WCG, June 28, 2011 at 3:48 p.m.

    Good post, Bill. We're definitely seeing a similar shift from the impressions-dominated past to an engagement-fueled future. One challenge is that the impressions/CPM/GRP/TRP mindset is so ingrained across the marketing mix that it will take a lot of time and training to get where we need to go.

    Another critical challenge is how to define and measure engagement, especially given the growing importance of digital and social media -- which inevitably forces clients and agencies to work more closely across disciplines than ever before. To the examples you cite above, I'm uncomfortable with the "ad engagement" language being used by Kantar and Milward Brown. Feels more like "attention" or "attentiveness" to me, whereas the real "engagement" will take place by the consumer or business leader based on what they do *after* consuming the media content. (Whether or not it's immediate or delayed or after several other content exposures.)

    Several of us in the PR and social media communities are working to bring a cross-discipline approach together to help us move forward. It won't be easy and it won't be painless, but it's important. To that end, here's a post I did on the topic for PRSA's online magazine:

  4. Michael Cornette from Bonten Media, June 28, 2011 at 6:54 p.m.

    Bill - First of all, I think you lay out a vey good case here, though there are some things I would like to point out.

    First I would like to point to the same sentence that Srinivas Vadlamani pointed out, "the fact that people see something doesn't mean they actually care." I think a huge fault of some is that they assume because they produced an advertisement, that people need to care. Don't be to quick to blame the messenger for the message.

    Also, research continues to show that television is as strong as ever, even with everyone multi-tasking. However, from what I can tell is the question is always phrased, "do you do 'X' while watching TV? TV viewing is the constant, and everything else is done "while watching TV."

    Lastly, is multi-tasking anything really new, or has it just changed it's shape? In the 40's and even 50's, could kids have been playing with toys while watching TV, could mom have been sewing, maybe dad was reading Life magazine? Yes these are stereotypes and Rockwellian in nature, but so is the notion that we live in a world where we can't navigate between a 2" screen and a 50" screen and still be aware of what is happening on both.

    I may be old school and so entrenched in the television world, but it seems to me that those pushing so hard to measure TV engagement to their expectations are the same people who might have have enjoyed a long streak of putting out mis-guided creative or a implemented a marketing mix/plan that didn't work, and are now trying to justify an existence.

    Just my two cents.

  5. Aaron Hendon from Proceed Media Group, June 29, 2011 at 4:18 p.m.

    Instead of excahnging one qualitative metric (GRP) for another (surveys) why not just track the acutal ROI of the media and tune the plan accordingly? In other words why not track the ultimate purpose of engagement which is a sale?

  6. J M from Self, June 30, 2011 at 5:19 p.m.

    "But as more opportunities arise for measuring engagement, and as impressions (and even clicks) mean less and less all the time..."

    Can you spot the absurdity in this statement? A valid click *is* the strongest signal of engagement ever!

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