Commentary

Accredit This Column


My Tuesday homeboy David Smith wrote a thought-provoking piece in this space last week about measurement auditing, certification and accreditation. David talked about the risk of clutter and fragmentation in the online audit space (my words, not his.) He emphasized the role of the Media Rating Council (MRC) and raised a question about the role of the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF.)

Here in the digital space, we tend to be of two minds with respect to traditional media institutions (like the MRC, the Gross Rating Point, etc.) On the one hand, of course, we digerati want a seat at the grown-up table; in fact, there can be no question anymore that online is a medium that is all grown up. On the other hand, we tend to look askance at anything from the analog, 20th century, "media 1.0" world; how can that possibly apply to our space? We're far too complex to be bound by convention! We have widgets and social networking!

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Sometimes I feel like an old-school pundit in a digital world.

As far as media audience measurement auditing is concerned, the Big Dog is the Media Rating Council (MRC). I first came to comScore as an external consultant in August of 2006 to manage the MRC process; online metrics historians will note that this engagement preceded the IAB's call for MRC accreditation by a good eight months. We've been working together for almost two years (the first year on the pre-audit), so I thought I'd offer my take on auditing and accreditation.

I won't recount the history of the MRC here -- you can find that at their Web site. But to my mind, despite the gravitas of their original charter (the MRC was an outgrowth of Congressional hearings), the primary reason that MRC audits carry such weight is the fact of the organization's collective constituency. While the MRC is an independent body, their membership is comprised of a roster of blue-chip media companies, advertising agencies, and advertisers, as well as industry associations.

Key players from these companies sit on the audit committees, review audit findings, participate in setting the direction of the audit, and ultimately, vote on the outcome. The MRC speaks to companies like mine largely because it is a body through which our customers speak to us. To my mind, what distinguishes the MRC process from all other audits is the extent to which these constituencies have, quite literally, a seat at the table.

(And by the way, if your company is not a member, give it some thought. There is a seat waiting for you. Let's make sure the online space is well-represented.)

We all understand that a key value proposition of any audit process is the assurance to the user of transparency and disclosure. An MRC audit assures that the measurement company provides a detailed disclosure of methodology and procedures, as well as regular disclosures about performance. But in my experience, another vitally important and oft-overlooked component of the MRC process is the component of commitment to excellence. In order to earn accreditation, an audience measurement company must be prepared to commit to an ongoing pursuit of excellence. In that respect, I would suggest that MRC audit and accreditation is an ongoing process, not a march toward an end. Indeed, the very first of the MRC's Ethical and Operational Standards reads thusly: "Each rating service shall try constantly to reduce the effects of bias, distortion, and human error in all phases of its activities." Constant improvement is never done.

I agree with David Smith that there is a place in the process for the ARF. In the past, comScore has undergone an ARF audit; we are actually in the midst of one now as well. The ARF audit will provide interested parties with a scholarly, diligent, and informed prospectus on the Media Metrix methodology, from a trusted source. Like MRC, the ARF serves a constituency that includes advertisers, agencies and the media; unlike MRC, ARF membership also includes research companies. For many ARF initiatives, the presence of research suppliers makes a profound difference, because the suppliers bring both a practical experience and a pool of resources that can be deployed in the service of collective learning.

Finally, I also agree with Jodi McDermott that media and measurement technologies are changing so fast that it is difficult for measurers and their constituents to wait for the development of standards; it is a fact of media life that a new medium requires measurement well before the industry can align around how measurement standards should be set. And more important, we must avoid the trap of applying last generation's standards to the next generation's techniques.

In closing, I should note, by way of complete disclosure, that this column is not yet accredited.

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