The Wonders and Contradictions of Counting Audiences

The emerging digital age is nothing if not contradictory and filled with its own ironies, and it takes events like the month long upfronts and your average random events to bring that into (quirky) focus.

It is hardly left unsaid, but it is usually left unexplored, that online measurement of who’s watching what is vastly superior, and more intrusive, than anything in the old media world.

But in the past few weeks, what was being sold, particularly by cable and broadcast networks, was the buy-in-bulk mentality that a rich cache of 18-34s or 25-49s awaits advertisers on one or another of the networks.

It’s not just them, of course. At Alloy Digital’s NewFronts presentation earlier this month, I joked to an executive that I am of no help to the demographics of the Smosh channel that I love to watch, despite my continuing calcification. He joked that, in fact, I probably help bring the average down to what they wish it was (18-to-34, I’d guess) because it has so many younger viewers (much younger) than that.

I made the mistake of shopping for a gift for my wife online recently, and I’m still paying for it with a barrage of advertisements that are following me around. (What I can tell you about sundresses!)  I also booked a flight, car and hotel. The entire digital world seems to know about that, too. (That’s kind of irksome. I keep getting better offers, but I’m booked. I’m flooded with evidence that verily catcall to me, “You could have done better.”)

Today’s New York Times chronicles an appearance by Larry Page, Google’s CEO, a day after he announced he has a problem with his vocal cords that, for the last year has made him skip public speaking appearances.  He doesn’t like how he handled the situation, he said, and then he disclosed, “I had this notion that this stuff should be very private, and I think at least in my case, I should’ve done it sooner,” he said.

Private? The P-word? From the head of Google? Elsewhere,  the Times reports on a new, improved Google Maps that will show users the places they visit a lot, based on information gleaned not just from previous Maps searches but from GooglePlus posts and Gmail in-boxes.

“Like many of Google’s new announcements, the service hovers over the line between useful and creepy,” the story says. In context, it makes Page’s feelings about preserving some privacy over his medical condition seem disloyal to the core brand, even the core idea of digital.

The future of mass media is advertising that is on the buddy system. The advertiser knows who you are, at least in broad terms, and you know they know. And everybody is OK with that. Online, increasingly, is being sold through programmatic buys that are based on who’s watching, not, as the networks still sell advertising, on who they hope is watching. People deep in the digital ad business sometimes speak with a little contempt for three-martini style of buying and selling. In fact, they have better, bigger data.

And more to come.

A  Financial Times article highlighted some of the more “efficient” ways audiences could be spliced, diced and counted:  “A Verizon patent application published in November details plans to create a digital video recorder that watches television viewers and listens to their conversations for ad targeting. A Visa patent application published in 2011 describes tapping information from DNA data banks."

It’s enough to make even Larry Page exclaim.

2 comments about "The Wonders and Contradictions of Counting Audiences ".
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  1. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, May 16, 2013 at 3:44 p.m.

    I'm skeptical that we'll see anywhere near the value out of all this focus work. In truth, if it had broad applicability, we'd already see strong economic gains in prices of online advertising. But we don't. People have been tracking, following, selling "targeted" ads, etc... for well over a decade. And yet online ads remain on bargain based price structures - apparently because the value they deliver advertisers just can't demand a better price. So count me in the "in 5 years we'll look back and wonder what we were thinking" category.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 16, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.

    Let's get an opt out law on the books asap to outlaw television watching you, my big brother.

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