The Answer Is: When You Grow Up

Rarely do I get to use a cliché as aptly as I do in applying it to Tom Hespos' Dec. 6th question, "When Will Online Measurement Stop Playing Follow The Leader?" The cliché is this: Those who choose to ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. And the answer to his question is the title to this piece.

Hespos' lament is old, tired and unproductive! It has been heard since the first ad hit cyberspace in 1997 in the now-defunct, groundbreaking Prodigy. It is thinking like his that has kept interactive from achieving its rightful place among major media for better than ten years.

The history of media is rich with stories about dauntless pioneers who felt, just like Hespos, that "their" new medium deserved--nay, must--force the market to accept new metrics. A couple of brief illustrations:

The early cable TV pioneers, notably Ted Turner and John Malone--and legions of their disciples--made many a recorded speech about the fact that "cable is NOT TV" and that TV metrics like Nielsen's ratings were not only inappropriate, but actually harmful to their nascent medium. In those early days (circa 1980), they were lamenting in pain. And they continued to be in pain until they finally understood the realities of the world of advertising. They only started laughing all the way to the bank when Nielsen started measuring cable. It is now about thirty years since cable started selling ads--originally expecting, by the way, to get significant price premiums because it was such a "targeted," "engaging" and, yes, "interactive" medium. Nevertheless, the three "dinosaurs" and a thousand over-the-air stations are still in business doing very well, thank you. But nobody will deny that cable is now a force to be reckoned with--and nobody will deny that being measured with the old, "inappropriate" metrics is why.



Television is undoubtedly everybody's horse-to-beat; and here's the reason why. Network TV leaders realized very early on that in order to beat radio they had to adapt and improve upon the then-prevalent metrics of "ratings." There were many in those early TV days who argued--just as Hespos does today-- that TV is SO different from radio because it has not only sound, but also "sight and motion." It's hard to dispute the fact that TV was as revolutionary in its first days as interactive is today, I think. Still, the Founding Fathers of TV very quickly adopted an (almost) exact replica of the audiometer and became successful (and extremely rich) in very short order.

Remember radio? The medium that was going to destroy the existing main print media, magazines and newspapers? Well, first, projections of the death of print were immature. Second, radio took off as a medium only when A.C. Nielsen Sr. invented a device called an Audimeter. That device emulated (or at least attempted to mimic) the way the total audience for print was measured in the 1930s.

Even as I write this today, the absolute oldest medium, outdoor, is embracing "old" metrics. I would bet a couple of my own hard-earned dollars that it will pay off handsomely. Arguably, the second oldest medium, yellow pages, is also accepting reality after many years of denial. This medium, too, has listened to the market and is adopting a form of "old" metrics.

There is a simple, unbreakable law in marketing: the customer is always right. A product, ANY product starts selling well only when a seller stops his love affair with his own product, and listens to the market.

So to reprise the question: When will online measurement stop playing follow the leader? When it IS the Leader. And when will THAT happen? When it grows up!

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