Arbitron quietly released the massive tome of data - running about 900 pages and covering nearly 7,200 pieces of outdoor inventory in the Atlanta market - last week. The test, which utilized an unusual hybrid of personal diaries, as well as high-tech global positioning satellite (GPS) devices, measured the exposure of individual respondents to a variety of out-of-home media, including posters, bulletins, street furniture and the like. It's been hailed as a first step toward a true ratings system for the outdoor media, which would provide the industry with the kind of data that could be planned alongside major media such as TV and radio.
The results went to agencies, advertisers, the industry trade group and the outdoor advertising companies themselves, which will have to pay for the ratings if and when they become a regular syndicated research service, whether it's through Arbitron or a competing GPS-only version being deployed in Chicago early next year by Nielsen Media Research.
While there's a lot of data to go through, some of the study's key points jump out to those familiar with outdoor advertising. One finding challenges the conventional wisdom that out-of-home messages targeting a demographic must be located close to home. The study found in essence that consumers' mobility today makes it imperative to locate outdoor messages elsewhere, including commuting routes and roads in and out of shopping areas. And Arbitron goes a long way toward quantifying weighting and gross ratings points in out-of-home, which has been a sticking point in convincing advertisers and agencies to commit more dollars to outdoor. In its 900-page report, Arbitron measures every location and every billboard spot in the Atlanta market, which goes well beyond what's been available to the industry in the past.
"The granular level of detail is phenomenal," said Stephen Freitas, chief marketing officer at the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), a Washington-based trade organization that represents outdoor media companies. But it's just that level of detail - and a perceived lack of ease in going through the data - that irks planners and buyers.
"A data dump," said one planner.
Agencies quibbled about the report's PDF formatting, which can't be sliced and diced using analysis software.
"We can't do anything with the data, because it's in PDF. The whole point of this would be for us to run it through our reach and frequency systems to learn something about outdoor media," said Tony Jarvis, senior vice president and director of strategic insights at MediaCom. But in fairness, he noted that it's been billed as merely a pilot study.
Matt Leible, director of out-of-home media at Horizon, said his initial reaction is that it seems complete but it isn't in a user-friendly format. He suggested an executive summary that summarizes the findings. He's looking forward to Arbitron's presentation of the data, which the company said it would be doing for the next several months.
"It's a lot of information, and we want to go through it, because this is important to us. We want a credible ratings service," Leible said. "In the out-of-home industry, we've been begging for numbers. Even as out-of-home is about feel and visibility, we still need numbers."
Representatives of the out-of-home advertising companies are also combing through the data. Paul Meyer, chief executive officer of Clear Channel Outdoor, said that eventually the Atlanta data would be helpful to its sales force.
"We're still evaluating how best to use that data, and obviously we're sorting through 900 pages of data," Meyer said. "There's still work to do in terms of how to organize and present that data."
Questioned about the format, Arbitron said that it focused first on providing the board-by-board, location-by-location data in granular detail. The company plans to provide customers with software options in the future, when it has become a commercial service.
"You have to remember that there are 7,200 pieces of inventory. That's a lot of inventory. Point well taken, we need to be able to aggregate the data and make it easy to use and easy to read," said Pierre Bouvard, president of new ventures at Arbitron.
Jarvis applauds Arbitron's effort, although he continues to have big questions about how the research is being conducted.
"They're calling this a 'GPS-plus system,' but the data is based on 1,304 respondents that filled out a travel log diary for three days and 50 of them carried a GPS device for seven days," said Jarvis. "Is that a GPS-based survey?" Nielsen plans to deploy a pure GPS-based system in Chicago early next year. It's based on technology developed by one-time Nielsen TV ratings rival R.D. Percy. Nielsen has already tested the GPS-based out-of-home system in South Africa.
"Sadly, I don't think this test does a lot for Arbitron. It doesn't move the needle at all. We already knew what the methodology was and we know it's weak. This doesn't tell us anything new," said Jarvis.
Bouvard said that Arbitron was and is still testing the methodology. He likened it to figuring out the best ingredients for a cake mix. He said that Arbitron would be asking for plenty of feedback from advertisers, agencies, and media companies as it decides how to proceed.
"This was a test. The final methodology, and the final recipe for the cake will occur with customer input," Bouvard said.
Despite the concerns, there's a lot of excitement about what the measurement system can do.
"It will clearly level the playing field," said Clear Channel Outdoor's Meyer. "It's been a subject of discussion in the industry for many, many years. What's so exciting for us is that these two initiatives, Arbitron and Nielsen, really came from those two companies recognizing just how undervalued outdoor is as a medium, and with the right kind of rating and measurement, that outdoor has the potential to be far, far more competitive."
"The industry has recognized that what they need to do is talk the standard media language rather than the historical language that was unique to outdoor," he said, noting out-of-home lingo like daily effective circulation (DEC) or showings that don't have comparable yardsticks in other mediums. "That's not standard media math. We are basically, in this data, presenting the information of such things as gross impression, weekly gross ratings points - these are commonly used, highly accepted media buying and planning concepts."
The OAAA's Freitas said the move toward making outdoor a more measured medium would have a profound impact on the industry.
"This is the first time that outdoor in the U.S. has ever seen demographic audience data," said Bouvard. "Historically, the industry has provided the advertiser with car counts. But a media plan is focused on age, sex, income, education, very specific demographics. A beer advertiser wants men 18-34. Outdoor/out-of-home has never had the opportunity to say, 'Great, here's my 18-34 GRPs."