Modern Targeting: Who Needs Audience Measurement Anyway?

I didn't get to a lot of the content at the 4As conference last week -- the conference is far too fertile a ground for meetings, both scheduled and impromptu.  But like most of the attendees, I made sure to catch Tim Armstrong's presentation.  In this session Armstrong showed a lot of cool-looking charts and graphs from a proposed dashboard for tracking, monitoring and managing advertising both on- and offline. ("Great," muttered someone sitting near me.  "Another dashboard.")

I wish I had the PowerPoint deck handy to review, because it went by so fast and I was busy swooning over the neatly plotted multimedia data. I know I'm not doing it justice. But as I thought about the session afterwards, from an admittedly jaundiced perspective, my overriding takeaway was that Google was moving to a place where the distinction between the advertising media, and the metrics about the media, were inextricably intertwined. 

In fact this is not an especially new phenomenon; behavioral targeting is based on just such a premise.  In behavioral targeting, the data identifying a consumer's behavior becomes the engine for delivering the appropriate ad to that consumer.  What I got a glimpse of in Armstrong's presentation was the extent to which, perhaps, a similar construct might emerge in so-called traditional (or mass) advertising as well.  A single supplier (Google) could provide the metrics about the audience, metrics about campaign performance, and then also sell the advertising schedules this data suggest would deliver the appropriate audience for the advertiser (in multiple media.)



Elegant, and almost a little scary.

I know that ISPs are gingerly (or not so gingerly) dipping a toe into this pool.  In the U.K., Phorm is launching a service that uses clickstream data provided by their partner ISPs to target ads directly to consumers; I have to figure that U.S.-based ISPs are poised to introduce the same sort of system, based on the data they generate about their own users.  Such ISP data comprises at least part of several existing audience measurement systems, including Compete and Hitwise.  (And did you see that TNS has acquired Compete?  Congrats to my friends at Compete; and I wonder just what TNS has up its sleeve?)

And of course there has been speculation that the ultimate business model of Quantcast, which gives the research away but raised $20 million in investment capital, is to be some sort of ad network or data-enabled targeting system.

Maybe I'm just hopelessly old school, but I grow wary when the company selling the audience also provides the audience metrics.  When I worked at Arbitron, we talked about the line between being the referee and being the coach; as an audience measurement service we were by definition the referee, so it was difficult for us to get into businesses that provided too much coaching.

But as I say, maybe I'm just out of touch.  These kids today with their BlackBerries and their Facebook, they have different ideas about things.  Privacy, for example, is very different to consumers who grow up in a world where all the details of their life are chronicled on their blogs and read by their mom's friends.  Copyright? Kids today think I'm a sap for paying for that Radiohead album.  So maybe the kids have a whole different view than I do about the line between audience measurement and audience delivery.  And by the way, while obviously I'm being somewhat ironic by talking about "kids," let's not forget that one of 'em started Facebook.  And recently, when a colleague of mine here at comScore was on a panel at a widget conference, she felt like the only one over 30 in the room. So while I call them "kids," one might also correctly call them today's entrepreneurs.

So I'm asking you, dear reader.  Where do you come out on the audience provider also providing the audience measurement?  I'm especially curious to see if there is any divergence of opinion by one's career length.

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