Media Metrics: Read. Argue. Measure?

The oldest nonlinear medium is the Talmud. Its format acknowledges diverse perspectives. Linear media present a single-minded point of view. Modern mass-market advertising follows this paradigm, making a single-minded point to a mythical single-minded consumer. Segmented marketing employs targeted media to deliver diverse advertising messages to an array of consumer targets, each of which may have a unique intended outcome. Back to the future!

In our own experience with nonlinear media, we see their ability to meet diverse interests. Every member of my family consumes The New York Times in his or her own fashion. All nonlinear media offer the benefits of pull media to some degree: The consumer pulls the content of interest, even if the pull is simply the turn of the page. Isn't nonlinear pull media self-guided and highly targeted? The targeting is accomplished intrinsically through the relevance of the content. The debate about engagement has reminded us of the importance of relevance, but how do we gauge its value?

In its analysis of single and concurrent media exposure, the Ball State University Center for Media Design's Middletown Media Studies show that magazines, newspapers, and the Web are more likely to be used concurrently with other media. As the most developed nonlinear medium, the Web tends to be used as both a primary and secondary medium alongside other media. Does this suggest the opportunity for dual-channel synergies, or mere distraction? The former promises greater engagement and media value, the latter less. How do we gauge the value?

Middletown's analysis of Web use while multitasking raises another issue. Sixty percent of time spent online occurs during other activities, notably work and other daily activities. That could mean reaching consumers when they are most likely to be receptive: food products during meal preparation, vacation travel while commuting, and so on. How do we measure the value of these impressions, let alone their occurrence?

Linear media gave the comforting assumption that consumers went from a program's beginning, through the middle, and on to the end, passively receiving all the ads along the way. The commercial audience equaled the program audience. But ever since the Toledo Department of Public Works' famous water-pressure study, we have known otherwise.

So how can the challenges of nonlinear media targeting and exposure measurement be met?

The truth is, I don't know. But I do know the answer is not "more of the same." Our media measurement systems are focused on single media in a multimedia exposure world. Some measure only in-home exposure. Most characterize the consumer demographically and don't characterize the exposure setting at all. The measurement task must be reversed to provide commercial exposure measurement for multimedia, in all locations, and with as much information about consumers and their exposure setting as possible. Anything less does not provide a reasonably complete picture of the value being offered to the advertiser.

>>Talmud: The Jewish book of law dating from the fifth century. With the text of the Mishnah in the center and the commentary of the ancient rabbis displayed around it, many viewpoints are shared. The reader can read his favorite commentators, or all of them, in any order. This article uses the Talmudic format, with the hypertext underline convention to connect the central text to the comments.

>>Engagement: Traditionally media planners have employed factors to estimate the relative value of exposure in one medium versus another. Based on research from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, these factors were often estimates of the proportion of program audiences attending to commercials. Despite the lack of contemporary data on these matters, the debate has proceeded to the subtler and even more challenging measurement issue of media/advertising synergies. Historical research has identified three types of synergies. 1)Priming, in which an ad's subject matter is signaled by the program/editorial content, predisposing the consumer to attention, 2)Consonance, in which the stylistic agreement between the editorial content and commercial message more smoothly transitions the consumer's mood, and 3)Involvement, in which involvement with the medium affects involvement with the ad, positively or negatively.

>>Relevance: Long known to advertisers as a key driver of persuasion. Y&R's Brand Asset Valuator proved the centrality of differentiated relevance to a consumer's valuation of a brand.

>>Housewives:Women, prevalent in the 1950s but in decline since then, who stay home to cook, clean, iron, and care for their children. Now often paired with "desperate."

>>Segmented marketing:Each target group has its own usage behavior and attitude, and each needs its own message. Ideally, each target also has a known value so that funds and media weight are well allocated.

>>The Toledo Department of Public Works: Discovered measurable water pressure drops during prime-time commercial breaks and developed a metric of certain room-leaving activities on that basis.

Currently available solutions, such as Nielsen's Active/Passive meter and Arbitron's Portable People Meter rely upon encoding. In the future, there will be printable Radio Frequency Identification tags for print. Will these tools meet the challenges and deliver the opportunities? I believe that until we find better solutions, we must commit ourselves to make the existing tools work. Otherwise we won't even know who was exposed, when, how, and where.

But wait, there's more, or maybe less. What about the value of the exposure? In a way analogous to our dependence upon the myth of linear media consumption for commercial exposure metrics, we have depended upon the myth of normative behavior for media value assumptions. For example, "day is worth less than prime because housewives leave the set on as they go about their chores and are less likely to view commercials while ironing." Or, "late-night is worth more than day, but less than prime because 9 to 5 consumers are in bed and less attentive." Right.

This is an even greater measurement challenge because there's no consensus regarding what should be measured. Single-source data, such as proffered by Project Apollo, promises a solution by measuring the ultimate outcomes - sales, retail traffic, and the like. By conducting granular analysis on the outcome of each exposure, the value equation can be revealed.

The contribution of the medium, exposure setting, advertising execution, and the consumer can all be decomposed and evaluated. Ethnographic data promises another solution, enabling us to leave the mythic past behind and grasp the realities of how, when, where, and why consumers use media today. Large-scale studies, such as Ball State University's Middletown Media Studies, are required if we hope to identify new normative behaviors and attitudes rather than the peculiarities of specific individuals.

Media metrics for nonlinear media offer challenges and also promise to unlock unseen value. The solutions will require an investment of time, money, and a willingness to reach a new consensus.

Jim Spaeth is founding partner of Sequent Partners.

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