Measuring Online Audiences: Who Cares About Accuracy?

Media numbers are tricky, slippery things. This may not matter much except that they’re important as they provide the currency used to buy and sell advertising space and time. They’re tricky as collecting any type of audience data is both complicated and sensitive. They’re slippery as just when you thought you had a new, improved way of doing it, someone somewhere decides their interests are better served by sticking with the status quo. After all, who cares about getting closer to the truth when the untruth might make you more money?

This is never better demonstrated than with numbers relating to online activity. Wasn’t this supposed to be the easy bit of audience measurement? After all, online anything is so accountable, so measurable that collecting how many saw what would be a breeze, wouldn’t it?

Unfortunately the advertising industry hadn’t factored in the deviousness of some of the outer fringes of the online business. Nor had the industry taken full account that in a world where the bigger the audience the bigger the sum required that it might be possible to inflate the audience by cheating.

I’m indebted (again) to The AdContrarian blog for summarising the current state of play in the US at least as follows:

You would think (or at least hope) that the online ad industry would do something to start to rebuild some confidence in itself. The IAB, as close as there is to an industry body recently stated that an ad can only be said to have been viewed if 50% of it was in view for at least one second (two seconds for video).

Let’s just step back. Can you name me one ad that can be said to have worked if half of it is in view for one second? I suppose it’s better than nothing, just, but as a measure of anything it’s inadequate.

In the midst of this measurement shambles it came as a relief to read some sense from the world’s biggest digital buyer – GroupM. Rob Norman, the agency group’s Global Chief Digital Officer took to one of the biggest media blogging platforms in the USA, Jack Myers’ Mediabizbloggers to state:

“If an ad can’t be seen, we won’t pay….The minimum requires 50% of pixels to be in view. We believe that almost without exception 100% is the requirement….In respect of video, the proposed two second standard is not adequate in our opinion….We believe that the responsibility for the quantification and eventual eradication of fraud is that of the seller….We will do everything we can to achieve the single most important right of the advertiser – to get exactly what’s paid for.”

In past Cog Blogs I have been critical of those agency executives who seem to think that shouting from the sidelines about the need for better audience data is the way to change things for the better, as opposed to engaging in the debate as GroupM and Xaxis have apparently been doing on the inside.

In other posts I have been less than complimentary about the Xaxis (a GroupM business) trading model – a position I maintain. But it is good to see GroupM publicly taking on the online ad fraudsters (and trying to improve the credibility of the online ad business as represented by the IAB).

It would be an even stronger initiative if Omnicom, Publicis, Aegis, Interpublic and Havas joined in and made clear their support. It would surely be sensible to set competitiveness to one side and to join forces to improve the credibility of the industry.

It’s true that many of those directly involved will make less money in the short-term if the basic online audience numbers are not quite as humungous as some would believe them to be. But in the long run ensuring the numbers are improved is necessary to secure the industry’s future as a serious, viable advertising vehicle.

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