Rethinking Traditional Audience Measurement Through A Digital Framework

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, December 11, 2015
I recently attended the biennial Print & Digital Research Forum, perhaps the most rigorous and scholarly symposium in all of audience measurement, with a heritage as the Worldwide Readership Research Symposium.

Not surprisingly, the bifurcation of print media to print and digital delivery occupies much of the thought space here. As I listened to some of the presenters speak about the latest methods for measuring readership across platforms -- while others reminded us of the core verities in audience research regardless of platform -- I found myself pondering TV measurement. (To be fair, I spend a lot of time pondering TV measurement.)

In particular, I’ve been thinking about what a TV measurement -- or perhaps better, video measurement -- system would look like if one were to zero-base such a solution today, with the tools we have at hand, given the measurement challenges we face, while unencumbered by legacy systems.

For years we’ve been hearing that digital needs to be more like TV. This has always been the prescription for making the medium more appealing to advertisers, who still allocate the largest share of budget to TV.  At this point, though, we all recognize that the opposite is occurring: that the medium of TV, as a consumer experience and as an advertising platform, has gone digital. So I believe that were we to zero-base a TV measurement system today, it would look an awful lot like digital measurement.

What would such a system look like? It would need to build on three key lessons from the digital space:

User-centric, device-gnostic: We must come to media measurement today placing the consumer -- the viewer -- at the center.

In the digital space, we used to think that if you measured computers, you were measuring digital, and indeed once upon the time this was the case. In a simpler time, we could conceptualize digital measurement through the lens of the computer panel. Now we know that digital content is consumed on computers, smartphones, tablets, wearables, gaming consoles and so on.

So we cannot think about measurement through the lens of the device; we must think in terms of the consumer, and build measurement that cuts across all devices the consumer uses to access content.

In TV, then, we cannot conceptualize measurement simply based on a box affixed to the set. Consumers are watching TV on all sorts of devices, in and outside the home, via broadcast, cable, satellite and streaming. We must design systems to reflect this complex reality.

Future-compatible: I’ve been in audience measurement long enough to remember when cable TV was a new medium. I was at Arbitron back when we had to figure out how to assure that TV ratings could accommodate that sprawling and unruly new media platform. I’ve been at comScore since 2007, and in that time we as an industry have had to grapple with two new media platforms — smartphones, tablets — along with others nipping at their heels: wearables, gaming consoles and even the Google thermostat. We’ve learned that if you engineer your audience measurement system for the present day only, you are courting disaster.

Big-data-friendly: TV is still the most mass of media, but in this day and age, as media consumption becomes more and more fractured, fragmented and granular, there is no excuse for failing to measure the long tail. And, as we endeavor to robustly measure that long tail, it becomes clear that Big Data assets are essential. In media measurement sometimes we call these assets naturalistic data sets — set-top-box/return-path data, for example, or the dataset generated from site tagging (or by placing an SDK within an app). In the digital measurement space we spent a good 10 years debating the relative merits of site-centric, census measurement versus person-based panel measurement, until finally we experienced our collective, “Hold on! You’re both right!” epiphany.

I’m an old school audience measurement professional, but I’ve learned that the traditional panel, regardless of its quality, is no longer a sufficient asset by itself in constructing robust and comprehensive audience measurement solutions. Quality panels remain important, but over time they’ve become a proportionately smaller piece of the measurement puzzle. Site tags, SDKs, and machine data have all become essential components of quality audience measurement.

I believe that the philosophical approach to building a TV measurement system today must be to assemble quality data assets -- including both panel measurement and naturalistic, Big Data assets -- and then bring them together in a holistic fashion. We need to be diligent in collecting all the TV and video to which the viewer is exposed, and we must be prepared to measure and report at sufficient scale to accommodate the thousand-channel, OTT-enabled, broadcast/cable/satellite/streaming, viewing environment in which we all compete.

And we must be prepared to embrace new channels and distribution platforms as they emerge, even if it means breaking apart what we’ve built and putting it back together again. This is how we’ve been forced to live in the digital space, and it’s how the TV researcher will need to operate as that medium continues to go digital.

What do YOU think?

This post was previously published in an earlier edition of Metrics Insider.

5 comments about "Rethinking Traditional Audience Measurement Through A Digital Framework".
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  1. andy brown from Consultant, December 11, 2015 at 3:20 p.m.

    Not for the first time an excellent piece Josh. Putting it simply you are describing a hybrid measurement world for TV (as it has evolved for online measurement). In this world traditional people meters (portable/set /in home) will have their place but will be integrated with return path data from multiple sources including set top boxes, routers and from the servers of OTT providers. 

    As as the ecosystem evolves there should be a place for clients 1st party data to be integrated alongside syndicated purchase data. This will serve both addressable and programmatic applications alongside the traditional trading model.

    As the bridge between online video and "TV" grows with a greater focus on measuring the audience (as opposed to the medium) I do believe however that the challenge will be to create a single metric for audience. It may not be possible in the same way the online industry has had multiple metrics. As we know it is technically possible to integrate traditional TV measurement and online video ( see the work of SKO in Netherlands) but the question will remain as to whether UGC videos of cats walking across piano keyboards at one extreme will carry the same value to an advertiser as premium TV content at the other. My guess is that the measurement platforms will be connected but media buyers will seek a range of metrics to assess the different types of video across a continuum in order to make informed decisions.

  2. John Grono from GAP Research, December 11, 2015 at 5:16 p.m.

    As usual Josh, an erudite piece.   As you are aware I have been a fan of hybrid systems for many years.   To me the question is not should we use an amalgam of data sources, but how well we use them.   The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

  3. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, December 12, 2015 at 12:52 p.m.

    Great piece Josh!

  4. Gray Hammond from G R Hammond, December 12, 2015 at 5:19 p.m.

    I agree, thoughtful & concise. You might want to compare/refer to similar article I wrote about 3 years ago:

  5. Andrew Susman from New Value Associates, December 15, 2015 at 1 p.m.

    Do you mean "gnostic" rather than "agnostic" above?  If so, your article is double blessed - I'd much prefer to be a device-gnostic, having knowledge, than merely neutral.  As Cousin Ted would say, differentiation is the basis of evolution.

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