Nielsen And Arbitron Vie For Outdoor Ratings Business

For decades advertisers and agency media departments alike have complained they had no real way of measuring just how many people saw their billboards. It is a limitation that has kept the outdoor industry from growing beyond the $5 billion it already takes annually from the advertising marketplace. But within the next few years, advertisers may have not one – but two – competing metrics on which to base their outdoor ad buys as Arbitron and Nielsen may soon battle it out for outdoor ratings supremacy.

Nielsen has formed Nielsen Outdoor, which will begin working on a way to develop outdoor advertising ratings later this month. The proposed service will be pilot tested in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Nielsen already measures radio and TV. If they go well, Nielsen’s next round of tests will be here in the U.S. Nielsen will count on global positioning satellites, or GPS, to create its ratings. Here’s how it will work: Nielsen will give its sample small pager-size devices to carry with them at all times. That device automatically tracks their movement at 20-second intervals, making the system almost completely passive. Each billboard will also be “geo-coded,” so using satellite GPS technology they can determine whenever someone passes by the billboard. Nielsen’s Lorraine Hadfield calls their system a “quantum leap” over previous outdoor ratings systems that have relied on traffic studies or claimed recall. “With this new service, media planners will be able to buy outdoor with the same confidence they have when they buy TV, radio and print,” she says.



However, Arbitron may have an edge at the moment, since its research is further along with the second round of outdoor ratings tests underway in Atlanta this fall. Arbitron is also using GPS technology, but it is merging it with other data. While still being worked out, Arbitron’s system will merge Scarborough research, traffic patterns, and most importantly, information collected by its radio dairy keepers – whereby Arbitron will ask them the route they traveled to determine which billboard they drove by. Arbitron says it has already signed 23 national and regional outdoor companies as subscribers, including Viacom Outdoor, Clear Channel Outdoor, MacDonald Media, and Adams Outdoor.

Arbitron spokesman Thom Mocarsky says that while their system is also testing a GPS component, they don’t believe it can serve as the basis for an outdoor rating system. Not only does it have technologic limitations, particularly in urban areas, but also it can be cost-prohibitive, says Mocarsky. “This is an industry that is not going to pay a lot for ratings and a pure GPS solution is going to be very expensive.”

Despite a weak economy, the advertising community has begun to support the effort to create a ratings system for outdoor. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) has invested $300,000 in the Arbitron project, while Nielsen has been pledged $15,000 from the OAAA plus another $45,000 from some of the industry’s largest players. Among the companies that are investing in the Nielsen tests is Clear Channel, which owns billboards in Johannesburg. “If the outdoor industry can develop a credible way to more accurately measure the audience it reaches, the medium will be far more competitive,” says Clear Channel Outdoor president Paul Meyer.

Nielsen has also formed the Outdoor Advisory Council to win industry consensus for a worldwide measurement currency. The group includes some of the biggest outdoor companies, the OAAA, plus the media-buying agencies MediaCom, Starcom MediaVest Group and Universal McCann. Nielsen is also in discussions with several major advertisers to join the Council. “This test is a call to arms for all of us in the outdoor industry,” says John Connolly, senior vice president, Out-of-Home Media, for MediaCom. “There is an opportunity here to forge an alliance between major sellers and buyers on how best to deliver what this industry has needed for so long: real, substantial credibility. No more crying about not getting a fair share of the media budget.”

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