Audience Measurement in 2020 — A Watershed Year

By The Cog Blog Archives
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The Cog Blog is nothing if not prescient. Within the past month (or sometime in the last decade in the minds of those from the cult of the shiny thing), I wrote: "But dry or not, believe me, measurement is the topic of the moment."

I sense this will be a watershed year for audience measurement, but that doesn't mean it's time for a clear out. Moving from an established, proven system to a new approach can lead to deep regret and unintended consequences unless we are careful to save the best bits of the thing we're junking.

Although those sentiments can be applied to many things in the media world (like the BBC), how we're measuring audiences is, in fact, of great significance when it comes to accountability of the media.

For many years, the ad business has been lucky to have a number of studies and services at its disposal, each created to provide something deeply relevant to that particular medium — and each designed, managed, and verified by the industry as a whole.

"The industry" translates to the media owners — broadcasters, publishers, and radio stations — and agencies that use the data and the advertisers whose money funds it all.

This joint industry committees (JIC) approach has worked well in the past and, indeed, still works well today. In the U.K., for example, the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (BARB) is a brilliant way of measuring TV audiences, while audience measurement company PAMCo and Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) do what they're supposed to do, which includes providing the currency for the planning, buying, and selling of ad space.

The funding has worked well too; take TV, for example. Broadcasters largely fund BARB, with the agencies paying for access to the data.

That's as it should be; the broadcasters use the data for far more than selling airtime. It's vital in selling programs overseas, constructing schedules, calculating artists' worth, and helps to justify additional costs, such as the BBC license fee.

But, as we all know, in the media world of today, nothing is ever simple. Once you move from TV to video, you introduce a whole new set of issues; for example: what is a viewer? "Easy," you may think, but different deliverers of audiences have different opinions.

Whose rules should dictate the way the research is conducted? When I sat on the BARB Management Committee, it was simple: The broadcasters made the decisions, and even if agencies huffed and puffed, they couldn't really do anything unless the broadcasters agreed. Agencies could discuss, debate, argue — they were listened to and could even affect aspects at the margins, but when it came down to it, we all knew what was going to happen. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

If you're Facebook, Google, or YouTube, you have your own set of rules and, indeed, your own set of data collected deterministically and hidden away from the prying eyes of those who would seek to validate or analyze it. Why should you compromise your rules or share your data with the competition?

On the other side, why would the broadcasters give the likes of Facebook and Google the measurement credibility that comes with the BARB imprint when doing so risks a loss of revenue?

The people who most benefit from an all-in, holistic system are the advertisers and their advisers. Their needs are clear: They want and need a cross-media measurement system. But, historically, they've never paid for the research, and the old argument that advertisers ultimately pay for everything is silly. On that basis, consumers — who really pay for everything — should fund audience measurement via a tax.

Planners need industry-wide, cross-media planning data to compare the impact and effect of advertising with PR, influencer marketing, and sponsorships. Within advertising, we need to be able to advise on TV versus streamed video, versus online display, versus social media, versus radio.

This is nothing new (although the labels have changed). We've always needed planning data and industry-accepted standards help to prevent a lot of pointless arguments later.

The buy-side has been so focused on buying matters, yet so unprepared to pay for anything that we have had to make do, stretching and bending the currency data to try to answer planning questions for which the research was never designed.

None of this is to suggest that we should junk the BARBs of this world, nor does it mean that the currency data is somehow not as important as it has always been. It's just that not even being able to agree on what a viewer is has become rather important.

The elephant in the room is who pays. Agencies never have any money (unless it's for Cannes entries) and, that aside, the focus of anything they do spend is on proprietary research as pitch fodder. TV broadcasters have no interest in funding research that might lead advertisers towards another media form. The platforms are growing very nicely, thank you, and see little reason to do anything other than carrying on within their walled gardens.

The key to solving this lies with the beneficiaries — and that means the advertisers. But they will need to do more than issue whitepapers and speak at conferences.

I have some thoughts and even partial solutions. The next Cog Blog will reveal what they are and argue for their adoption.

Don't stop now! Read more from the Brian Jacobs in The Cog Blog.

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