Friday, December 12, 2008

Another Rant on Audience Measurement

Anyone who still thinks that contextually targeted online video doesn't have impact ought to have been in my shoes last week. My appearance on "3 Minute Ad Age" beneath the headline "
IAB CEO Rants Against Audience-Measurement Complexity," tore up my email box as well as the advertising-obsessed quadrants of the blogosphere.

While enormous credit goes to Ad Age editor Hoag Levin -- who knew the hot word "rant" would be a magnet to blogging, traffic-driving controversialists -- I believe my generally mild charge struck a chord because it reflected the daily reality of marketers, agencies, and publishers who are weighed under by the numbing complexity of selling, planning, buying, placing, and measuring advertising.

You can watch the video, but here, in essence, is what I said:

Measurement is not just a science; it is also an essential business process. Yes, measurement aims to uncover truths about the brands, products, services, and consumers with stakes in an advertising campaign, but those truths are worthless unless they improve -- unless they add value to -- the companies and customers on either end of the chain.

Our problem is that, right now, the marketing-media ecosystem has been so consumed by the equivalent of an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate, that we make the transacting of advertising business more difficult than it needs to be. Measurement, as I told the crowd at the IAB's Audience Measurement Leadership Forum last week, isn't the cause of this complexity crisis, but it's certainly a major ingredient.

Physician, Heal Thyself

An apt analogy is modern medical science. Advances in molecular biology, diagnostics, neuroscience, and technology and instrumentation have revolutionized our understanding of how the body works and malfunctions. But were it not linked to the practice of medicine in ways that allowed physicians to cure peoples' ills, we'd consider it a failure.

That's unfortunately where we are with so much of modern media measurement: The science is diverging from -- even divorcing itself from -- the practice. We can measure so many things, in so many ways, that the actual customer -- the marketer -- is tuning out. The McKinsey & Co. study I referenced last week, "
How Poor Metrics Undermine Digital Marketing," is sad proof of this undeniable reality. "Companies have failed to crack the code for measurement," the consulting firm concluded from its survey of 340 marketers around the world. Comparing its findings to a similar study done in 2007, McKinsey found that "most companies have made little progress in this area."

Who's at fault? Let's ask, rather, what's at fault. Interactive media is an industry with historically low barriers to entry. Moreover, its delivery is based upon the almost continual exchange of bits and bytes of information. Pretty much by definition, that means the more media we create, the
more data out there that can be measured -- and the more opportunities to measure them. Pageviews, hits, clicks, time spent, pre-roll completion -- the media glut almost pre-determines a measurement glut.

The IAB was created to bring form to this chaos, and has done a fine job of coalescing all parts of our industry around standards and guidelines that create the definitional consistency that make business simpler to conduct. Last week, we issued for public comment our Audience Reach Measurement Guidelines. Forty-four companies -- publishers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Weather Channel, researchers such as Scarborough and Millward Brown, auditing experts such as Price Waterhouse Coopers and the Audit Bureau of Circulations, giants like Google and Microsoft, and newer innovators like YuMe Networks -- came together to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

When Dinosaurs Ruled

The public comment so far has been largely quite positive. But not all of it. Edelman Public Relations executive and well-known blogger Steve Rubel said the guidelines are "beholden to an era when the reach dinos ruled the online landscape. They don't any more. It's a new era." Mr. Rubel wants a whole range of measurement standards, including those for engagement and "reputation/sentiment."

Well, you know, we all want to change the world. Me, I want to help those "reach dinos" do business today -- and reach analysis remains a fundamental way they want to do it. Some of these dinosaurs are even advancing the practice considerably. The McKinsey study concludes on a hopeful note, finding that "
some marketers have made rigorous measurement a priority," and details the benefits they have accrued:

One marketer—a home-furnishings rent-to-own chain—used a method called RCQ (for reach, cost, and quality) to optimize its allocation of spending among ad vehicles. This metric, combining rigorous analytics with systematically applied judgment, measures the number of people each ad vehicle reaches and the cost of reaching them by vehicle. It also includes a quality factor based on changes in engagement, attitudes, and behavior. The RCQ analysis showed that the chain spent too much on its workhorse vehicles, such as direct mail, and too little on television infomercials (which convey more information) and online ads (which can be targeted more precisely).

I am reminded of something IAB Chair Wenda Harris Millard told me when I was taking this position, and has repeated in several venues since: "We" -- the interactive industry, the cognoscenti, digerati -- "need to be a part of, not apart from."

So with apologies to Mr. Rubel (whose writing and mind I admire), maybe we put measurement standards for reputation and sentiment aside for the time being -- and abandon a lot of other sectarian pursuits -- so we can do business with our customers, not against our customers. Coalescing around a set of standards that simplify the ways we make people aware of, knowledgeable about, and favorable toward brands is (as Ms. Millard's boss Martha Stewart would say) a good thing. They might even help us rebuild the consumer economy.


  1. Randall:

    I am reminded of Einstein's advice:

    "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

    The audience definitin document will go a long way toward meking this complex topic a simpler one.


  2. Randy,

    It certainly seems odd that cyber-research isn't keeping pace with the growth of cyber-commerce. Can it really be that difficult to invent some simple, easy-to-understand, easy-to-act-on audience measurement tools?

    It's a shame that the ONLY form of media that stands to possibly grow during 2009 is shooting itself in the foot.

    Maybe Steve Jobs can be persuaded to take a couple of days off from computers, phones and music players while he concocts a simple, powerful audience-measurement service.

    He'd make a ton of dough -- and would, of course, name his sizzling new invention: iData. (What else?)