Audience Measurement in 2020 – A Watershed Year

The Cog Blog is nothing if not prescient. Here’s an extract from a post on 9th January. That’s, oh almost a month ago (or sometime in the last decade in the minds of those from the cult of the shiny thing). I wrote: “‘Measurement’ is believe me the topic of the moment.”

I sense this will be a watershed year for audience measurement. That does not 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.

But whilst those sentiments can be applied to many things in the media world (like the BBC), today’s post focuses on a topic (how we measure audiences) that may appear dry but is in fact of great significance in the accountability of the media.

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

‘The industry’ means the media owner – the broadcasters, publishers, radio stations and so on – the agencies who use the data, and the advertisers whose money funds us all.

This JIC approach has worked well, indeed it still works well. BARB is a brilliant way of measuring TV audiences, PAMCO and RAJAR do what they’re supposed to do, which is to provide both the currency for the planning, buying and selling of ad space, and a whole lot more.

The funding has worked well too. Take TV. The 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 programmes overseas, in constructing schedules, in calculating artists’ worth and it helps justify such as the BBC licence 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 done? When I sat on the BARB Management Committee it was simple: the broadcasters decided, and even if we as agencies huffed and puffed we couldn’t really do anything unless the broadcasters agreed. We could discuss, debate, argue, we were listened to and could even affect things at the margins, but when it came to it we all knew what was going to happen. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

If you’re Facebook, or Google / 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 analyse them. 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, sponsorships. We need, within advertising 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 save a lot of pointless arguments later.

The buy side has been so focused on buying matters, and 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 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 anyway 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 carry on doing what they’re doing inside 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 white papers 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.

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