Why Traditional Media Accountability Doesn't Add Up

In a lengthy treatise on his Web site entitled "Media Malpractice," media consultant Erwin Ephron explores "Why Our Traditional Approach to Measuring Media No Longer Tells Advertisers What They Need to Know."

The erudite Ephron writes "our traditional ratings measures of exposure... have become a poor proxy for people seeing or hearing advertising... at best our measurement system reports exposure to media carrying ads that people may or may not see." He goes on to note a rush by offline media companies to figure how to convince advertisers that their declining audiences are still worth targeting.

He presents a series of complex equations to offset the shortcomings of audience measurement for offline media (primarily broadcast TV), and then concludes: "Advertisers are demanding accountability, but how can advertising be accountable until it uses more realistic estimates of people seeing advertising?"

In my view, one of the big drivers of more traditional media audience accountability (and perhaps a big chunk of why offline media is losing audience) is the Internet. Interestingly, Ephron hardly acknowledges online in the article.

Because online was the new kid on the block, it was held to a higher standard of accountability than traditional media that date back in some forms more than a century or two. Serious media dollars were NOT spent online until the industry moved beyond such spurious measurement metrics like as "hits" and "eyeballs." Even today, there are too many discrepancies between syndicated research and internal data.

Still, the Internet provides advertisers with more accurate and fresher audience data than any other medium. Moreover, it provides proof that ads are not only seen, but generate action. This is not to suggest that the Internet is merely the world's best direct response medium. Dozens of studies have shown that online ads lift brand awareness, recall, intent to buy, and even generate sales long after exposure to the ad has ceased.

One of the sticking points in offline media research is how to prove that your ad is not only seen, but generates a reaction. Writes Ephron: "A media exposure is someone seeing or hearing a media vehicle carrying an ad. It is in many ways less than it appears to be. Exposure is what researchers grandly call a 'stimulus' measure in that it requires no consumer response to prove it happened, just consumer proximity."

This means that someone might be in the room when your ad runs, but so what? That launches the usual discussion about the right mix of reach and frequency since an ad seen once generally is not remembered, etc. The bottom line is that advertisers in offline media have little chance of knowing if their ads generate a reaction unless they have - guess what - direct response tags like toll-free call-in numbers.

Similarly, an ad served online may or may not generate action from the targeted audience. But with click-through data, advertisers have at least some idea of how many people saw the ad and took SOME action. As creative units and targeting get more sophisticated and more efficient the click rates soar and advertisers know there is a direct line between their online ad and products moving off a shelf or out of a showroom.

The best thing is that it doesn't take complex equations to figure out how to compensate for inadequate audience measurement like Ephron proposes for TV. With a CPC or CPA buy, online advertisers only pay for ads that successfully generate a reaction.

This equals simpler math for advertisers.

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