Mind The Gap

Next week many of the most influential thinkers in audience measurement will gather in Nice for the annual asi Conference. I say ‘many’ as there will be the inevitable shortage of agency representation (‘we spent our budgets in Cannes…’) and despite an admirable turn-out from ISBA there will not be many advertisers present either. 

This is a shame – audience measurement (in one form or another) forms the bedrock of the media business, the foundation on which plans are built, and buys are made.  

Worryingly the principles on which the various systems have been built over a considerable period are coming into question like never before. 

The concern is that whilst the technocrats squabble over the detail the real argument is happening elsewhere and is concerned less with technique and more with politics, structure, and the search for ever larger numbers, however meaningless. 

We are genuinely in danger of weakening the bedrock, and once you do that the likelihood is that the whole house will come tumbling down. 

It might be worthwhile starting at the beginning. 

Why measure audiences at all? It may seem an obvious question but in the modern era of platforms and big data (is that still a thing?) we can allegedly quantify everything without going to the trouble of measuring it. 

If you can claim, with a straight face that your platform reaches more of a certain demographic than actually exists in living breathing form (a particular specialism of Facebook), and if buyers are happy to continue to buy impressions allegedly made against these non-existent people, then why bother? 

As we all know, audience measurement creates the currency used to buy and sell space and time. 

The provision of a currency is hugely important, and it is a credit to the measurement community that its accuracy is not questioned. I doubt that there are many advertisers or their agencies seriously questioning BARB data. 

BARB just is – and well done to all involved to have reached that status. 

That they have done so is due to a lot of behind-the-scenes work, strengthening the bedrock where necessary, so that it’s able to take the strain imposed upon it by new developments in the marketplace. 

BARB is on firm ground in any technical debate. 

But the participants in the new debate are not technicians, they are investors, moneymen who see advertising dollars blindly following size. 

They demand ever bigger numbers to feed the beast. If the audience is not there, then make it look as if it is. Matters of research propriety will soon be forgotten as the platforms deliver ever more impressions, ever higher reach. 

And therein lies the genius idea. 

Take 100 advertisers from 20 years ago and ask them to define ‘impressions’. Or ‘reach.’ Few would have been able to do so. 

So why not use the same words? 

No-one that matters will spot the difference when online terms are set against conventional measurement norms. 

Once you have got away with misusing words you can do what you like. 

Sell more ‘impressions,’ no-one knows what they are anyway, but we can see you more of them for less. 

Are they human ‘impressions?’ Well, who knows and anyway (runs the online evangelists’ argument) TV commercials sometimes play to an empty room. 

In olden times everyone accepted TV ratings as an approximation of the truth. It was close, the gap between ratings as reported and reality was there, but it was narrow. 

Yes, when the ads came on people left the room; yes, they looked away; yes, they ate, yes, they chatted. But not in massive, wholly distracted numbers. 

When ratings data were used in econometric models, it was with confidence. The data were consistent and accepted, the correlation was there. Advertising, done well, worked.  

The gap between the measurement and real life was not too wide. 

But now it is a gaping chasm. 

Dr Augustine Fou reports that in the world of programmatic buying somewhere between 1% and 4% of online clicks come from humans. 

But hey, the impressions were cheap. Hurrah for cheap media! 

We need to start to change this narrative. 

Advertisers need to ask the right questions of their agencies (who are in no way going to want to initiate this conversation). 

They need to understand that the same word used in different media contexts does not necessarily mean the same thing. 

They need to understand the size of the gap that’s opened up between what they are buying and what they think they are buying. 

If they do not do this, they will have some exceedingly tough questions to answer.  

Including how come we bought more impressions than we did back in the olden days, but our advertising seemed to work back then? 

Only yesterday the BBC reported a slow-down in online ad spend. 

An economic slowdown is upon us, yes. But maybe these ads are not working so well, and it has just taken us a while to work that out. 

Those spending the money are going to have to accept the truth that, in the words of my Crater Lake analytics colleague David Beaton, ‘Bots Don’t Buy.’ 

  1. Amen! At the ARF audienceXscience Conference back in April, 3 industry leaders gave three quite different definitions of “impressions” which has surely become the most abused term in advertising & media today. This is a key reason, along with your many salient points, why the industry is, I suggest, chasing it tail pursuing multiple media currencies. Just one is required for basic media vehicle comparisons and target audience based reach & frequency but be careful with CPM’s – “completely positively mad”. And, as most agencies are doing, enhance the basic common currency across ALL media with an array of pertinent additional media insights critical to the brand and it objectives.
    Going back to basic principles and the ARF Media Model, agreeing on a common cross media currency is surely not that difficult. If you read this The Clog Blog earned an Eyes-On and my “message” earned your attention. Perhaps clues for the ultimate definition of a media currency and subsequently a creative currency?

  2. Brian, given the importance of the basics (i.e. definitions) in setting measurement standards, would it not be a useful to have a session during this conference to talk about the definitions the industry needs (impression, reach, etc) and have this set in stone, once and for all? I realise the sessions planned during the event will be really valuable, but given the urgent need to get the basics right, it might be a good idea to kick off the event with a session like this, so at least during the rest of the event everyone is using those exact definitions. What do you think?

  3. Hi Koen – great to hear from you, I hope you’ve been keeping well.
    The asi event starts Wednesday with three days of tightly packed papers so there’s no way the organisers can do what you’re suggesting.
    However – calling everyone together to agree definitions is a good idea, and I’ll certainly do what I can to support that. There have been attempts in the past via various trade bodies but of course what happens is that everyone is in favour as long as their pet definition is the one chosen!
    This is why I don’t see the issue as a technical one but far more about politics, or to be more precise ad revenue.
    That’s why I see advertisers as key. If those with the money can agree that as far as they’re concerned an impression = x, y, or z and they won’t accept any variation when it comes to decisions on how they spend their budgets then we might get somewhere.
    Thanks for the thought – leave it with me!

  4. Thanks Tony, I think we can agree that simplicity and consistency are key!

  5. Brian, having worked, for my sins with (disciplined, traditional) media, ‘open web’ digital AND global platforms I might be tempted to point out here that in my experience the global platforms, in relative terms, have been a rather shining beacon in an otherwise maelstrom of poor data discipline online. I think your criticism is wholly accurate for open web….but I have to say that having worked directly with global platform data and their measurement science teams I’ve been rather impressed with their tendency to take data quite seriously….sometimes in the face of frankly wacky requests from their advertiser partners who have spent a long time replacing their experienced researchers with ‘analysts’ who’s focus often appears more focussed on themselves inflating data for internal political purposes. certainly in my experience they behave no better or worse than an traditional media owner – I note that several disciplined traditional media owners claim all sorts of ‘interesting’ reach estimates on their rate cards (more readers than the UK population anyone!?!?)…NOW open web data is still in need of everything you outline above but I think sometimes we should credit where it is due. At a recent WFA summit those same platforms were notably keen to ensure clarity of measurement that would be a credit to any JIC. In sum I think there is undeniably an issue but I think it’s a quite complex patchwork of the good the bad and the ugly and the global platforms are not the Machiavelli’s that they are often accused of being.

  6. Thanks Andrew.
    The main point I was trying to make was in support of open-ness and a common definitions of terms.
    The platforms do confuse (I would say seek to confuse) by using words that have been an established part of the marketing vernacular for years to mean something different from the normal, the traditional
    I also think they obfuscate when it comes to fraud and bots.
    I don’t doubt they have smart data scientists, nor do I doubt they do some very clever things with data but they don’t open themselves up to external objective verification.
    This is particularly true when it comes to the modelling of effect, and what they describe as ‘attribution’.
    None of this means the channels aren’t good at doing what they do, but a greater open-ness and a preparedness to take part in sensible conversations over terminology would be welcome.
    Hope to see you soon.

  7. Perhaps we can start with a recognition that media metric terms were originally based on a measure of people and audiences and that in social media and much of digital these terms are now based on device measures. Not the same thing at all of course notably for planning, buying or attribution modelling.
    The old print media adage that, “distribution is not necessarily receipt, and receipt is not necessarily readership, and readership (of editorial) is not necessarily readership, or Eyes-On, for ads” surely still offers a critical foundation to understanding the complex digital ad ecosystem today and its role in ad campaigns?
    As the “attention” specialists have warned, unless a campaign achieves attention or impacts even beyond basic audience contact, Eyes-On or Ears-On, with the brand’s target group, there can be no ad creative effect even if that creative content has been independently verified as rendered perfectly to agency specifications across all media screens (devices)! Sorry I will not be in Nice. Enjoy!

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