Thursday, November 29, 2007

Interactive Audience Research & The Quest for Truth

These were the opening remarks I gave a few moments ago at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's first-ever Audience Measurement Leadership Forum. That even is taking place right now at the Marriott New York Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

I have spoken and written about growing up as the son of a market and media researcher. What I have never said publicly is that my life has been framed by market and media research. Today, for the first time, I will tell that story.

My father entered Temple University in Philadelphia in 1948, to pursue a degree in marketing – a brand new major at the school, and one that combined his interests in business, radio and that new invention, television.

It was a good choice for a Jewish boy from Northeast Philly, for media research was one of the few areas in white collar business that had been open to Jews. That was true even in the advertising agency business, which today we recall for its friendliness to minorities. Other than in research departments, that had not been the case: One historian who reviewed the 1931 edition of Who’s Who in Advertising found only 92 identifiably Jewish names among the 5,000 people listed.

My father’s first post-college job was at the Benson & Benson research company in Princeton, N.J., which had been founded by Larry Benson, previously the managing director of the Gallup Poll. At that time, Princeton was the Silicon Valley of research. Startup companies dotted Witherspoon and Nassau Streets, most of them, like Benson & Benson, founded by refugees from Gallup.Later, when I was fortunate enough to attend the university located in that town, my Dad, referring to his walk from the train station to his office, liked to say he had “passed through Princeton.” It was a not-so-subtle acknowledgement that in the 1950’s, there were precious few real opportunities for kids of his background to have passed through Princeton.

Of course, by that time, he’d moved from Philadelphia with his family to the New York area. He’d been hired by NBC in 1957 to do research on the public’s potential reaction to another forthcoming invention, color television. His wife – my mother – had started up a small company that trained interviewers to go out into the field and conduct survey research. Their eldest child – that would be me – had made pocket money during high school by conducting hundreds of these interviews. Among my more pungent memories is lugging a 20-pound contraption called a “tachistocope” around the richest and hilliest sections of Ridgewood, N.J., trying to find scotch drinkers over 50 willing to let me into their mansions to show split-second flash images of different actors trying out for the title role in the Ambassador Scotch print advertising campaign.

Asking Questions

I learned that I liked asking questions for a living. I also learned that there is nothing more difficult than trying to find in a six block radius in Denville, N.J. a woman over 50 who is willing to test a vaginal deodorant. So I became a newspaper reporter, instead. Grilling Presidential candidates, I can attest, is much easier than filling the last gaps in a quota sample.

I mention this background because for much of the past 100 years, media and market researchers have been the business world’s most rugged, unflagging, and unfailing pioneers. Whether refugees from Germany, kids from the inner city, or emigrants from Asia, through the decades they have been driven by one goal: the quest for truth. What happened? What made it happen? What did they see? When? How did they react? Can we prove it? Can we repeat it? How are opinions shaped? Where do our preferences come from? Did it make a difference?

It is no exaggeration to say that these have been some of the most important questions asked – and provisionally answered – in public life during the past seven decades. Phrases that now are part of the fabric of everyday conversation originated in the classrooms and offices of researchers: “Personal influence…” “Public opinion…” “Opinion leader…” “Pollster…” “Survey said…"

It is also no exaggeration to say that the men and women behind such concepts were among the giants of American business and public life. Paul Lazarsfeld, Frank Stanton, Herta Herzog, Leo Bogart, Hadley Cantril, Art Nielsen, George Gallup, Elihu Katz – these were the people who pioneered audience research, invented media metering, forged modern politics, and shaped news and entertainment broadcasting. They even helped integrate the U.S. Armed Forces. Remarkable as it may seem, they walked the earth in our lifetimes.

Some of these pioneers still do walk this earth. And some of them are in this room. The technologies may change, but one thing remains constant: the researcher’s quest for truth.

Today, the opportunity to find truth in business and public life is greater than it ever has been. Interactive technologies are allowing us deeper and deeper access to peoples’ ideas, behaviors, and consumption patterns. We are able to combine sample-based research and census-based research to create a richer portrait of peoples’ lives than research scientists ever thought possible.

Research Startups

Entrepreneurs are taking advantage of these new opportunities. The research startups dotting the marketing and media landscape make the Witherspoon and Nassau Streets of Princeton in the 50’s look fallow indeed. comScore, Quantcast, Hitwise, Compete, M:Metrics, Omniture and scores of others have joined venerable firms like Nielsen to alter our understanding of social life.

Thanks to interactive technologies, media companies, too, have access to troves of information about the preferences, desires, and needs of their viewers, readers, and subscribers. They can deploy this information to make their news, entertainment, and advertising offerings more engaging and relevant to segments and sub-segments of their audience than ever before. Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Conde Nast, Meredith are joining “newcomers” to the media business like Microsoft, and contributing to this deeper, richer, and more valuable picture of the why’s and what’s of consumer behavior.

These media and research companies, together with advertising agency and marketer research departments, are transforming the way the marketing and media ecosystem operates. Thanks to them, our portrait of society – a rendering that used to be painted with broad brushes – is now a pointillist painting.

Of course, with new technologies and the opportunities they unleash come new complexities. Last March, the Interactive Advertising Bureau hosted a Summit Meeting on Audience Measurement. Executives from comScore and Nielsen joined representatives from major advertising agencies, marketers, media companies, and media-marketing-and-advertising trade associations to chart the journey forward.

It was a significant gathering, because we all realized that we seek the same thing: to use the new emerging interactive technologies to bring us closer and closer to the truth about consumer behaviors.

IAB's Role

This conference is a direct result of that gathering. The IAB agreed then to take on a vital role: To demystify the metrics of interactive marketing. To help educate the marketplace about what works, why, when, and under what circumstances. To showcase the advances in audience research made by research firms, media companies, ad agencies, and marketing departments. To make this pointillist painting of human behavior even more refined.

This is a new role for the IAB. We join venerable groups in the marketing world, like the Advertising Research Foundation, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Magazine Publishers of America, and the Newspaper Association of America, in this activity – and happily so. Few matters in business today can be more important than shedding light on – and reaching agreement on – how we measure consumer behavior.

The people you will hear from today would make Frank Stanton and Paul Lazarsfeld proud. These contemporary research pioneers will describe for you the new ways they are looking at peoples’ media journeys. They will explain how they are bringing together methodologies to measure activities in different media. They will give you a sense of what’s coming next.

On behalf of the 450 members of the IAB, I thank all these pioneers for joining with us in advancing the science of audience research. I want to thank the IAB’s Research Council for helping to plan such a rich and provocative day. I want to thank all of you for taking time during a busy holiday season to pursue this quest for truth.

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