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January 6, 2009

2009: Measuring Up

If, like me, you get a dozen or so MediaPost columns in your inbox each day, then you probably already know this.  But when you have to write a column every two weeks, often the hardest part is coming up with a topic idea.  So the end of the year is a total bonanza, because you can always write a “year in review” column or a “predictions for 2009” column.

I’m opting for the latter. To my regular readers (John G, I’m looking at you), these predictions will be recognizable as the key themes I’ve written about in 2008, and which I expect to continue writing about in 2009.

Monetizing video: While the specter of the recession-please-don’t-turn-into-a-depression looms over all of us, I think online video is poised to take off in a big way.  I tend to think that the online video advertising market is going to explode seemingly all at once, as advertisers develop a visceral sense of the impact, effectiveness, and engagement of the medium. What makes this a metrics forecast is that I expect measurement to play an important role in this explosion — not so much in terms of audience documentation (we’ve crossed that hurdle, I think) but rather in terms of quantifying the ad effectiveness of online video, in much the same way we’ve been able to do so with online display advertising. I predict that some time in 2009 we will see research that demonstrates the power of online video advertising to reach a highly desirable and otherwise elusive target audience, and to generate awareness, recall, and product movement. And lo, the floodgates will open.

Panel-centric hybrids: For a good 10 years, there have been debates in the online metrics space about the efficacy of panel-centric versus site-centric measures.  I’m reminded of those old TV commercials where two consumers would be arguing over two very different product attributes for the same product: “It’s a floor wax!”  “No, it’s a dessert topping!” — and then the narrator steps in and says, “Hold on — you’re both right!”   Or, as my friend Bill Rose at Arbitron put it when we were talking about panels and servers, “It’s like chocolate and peanut butter.”

Moving forward, we will see metrics solutions take root that integrate the best of panels (measurement of persons) and site-centric data (measuring machines.)  But in this scenario, the panel is the chocolate.  Publishers and advertisers want to understand how people are using Web properties — people, not machines, engage with content, see ads, and buy products (no one ever sold anything to a cookie.)  This notion may seem charmingly retro to some in the online space, but getting people measurement right is the place where audience measurement begins.  Person measurement is necessary to get at demographic composition, cross-vehicle duplication (reach and frequency), and duration — an increasingly important component of online metrics.

But persons-based measurement can be informed, and refined, by the integration of site-centric census data.  The site-centric data must be “cleaned” to remove non-human traffic and, depending on the edit rules of the measurement system, non-user initiated traffic (i.e. back-end calls that log page views to a server but that do not present content to a person.)  And of course, site-centric data must be allocated to the appropriate country of origin in order to line it up properly with persons-based audience measurement data, which is typically presented on a country-by-country basis.

But once these tasks are performed, site-centric data can, and will, be a part of a next-generation measurement solution.  Expect to see some significant advances in panel-centric hybrid systems in 2009.  And expect to read about them in this space.

Qualifying user experience: If only there were a widely accepted marketing and media term for the concept of evaluating the quality of the experience the consumer has with the media vehicle.  Something like… well, for the purpose of this column, let’s just call it “engagement.”

Many pundits, including your humble correspondent, have written about engagement over the past couple of years.  But I’ll bottom-line it like this: Think of traditional media metrics as a 2-dimensional shape, as a rectangle defined by the two axes of reach (how many?) and frequency (how much?)  The product of these two measures — or the area of the rectangle they describe — is Gross Ratings Points or Gross Impressions.

For a long time two dimensions were enough to plan and buy media.  But in this age of fragmentation and niche targeting and explosion of consumer choice, marketers and publishers are looking for another dimension in the evaluation of media exposure: one that describes the quality of the experience the consumer has with the content — and places a differential value on one impression or exposure versus another one.  Thus engagement, which essentially becomes the Z axis of media evaluation and makes media planning three-dimensional.  The concept of engagement allows for the possibility that two different media plans that reach the same consumers the same number of times can have different values to the advertiser, depending on the vehicles deployed.  And I think we all accept that this can indeed be the case.

In 2009, expect to see continued movement in the direction of attempting to operationalize this third dimension into the media planning, buying, and selling processes.

Online advertising works. I think we’re all waiting with bated breath to see how the New Year greets the online ecosystem.  Economic forecasts are dire.  Now, maybe I’m just a cockeyed optimist, but I believe that online advertising will largely weather the storm — because we know, and can demonstrate, that online advertising works.  Search delivers clicks and display advertising works whether or not there’s a click (see comScore’s ” Whither the Click” paper). And its been shown that both search and display advertising can deliver branding value, and can indeed drive sales, both in-session, in subsequent sessions, and (the iceberg beneath the surface of the ocean) offline.  In addition to search and display, online advertising can also include video and audio advertising, and in all likelihood by this time next year there will be viable formats and packages none of us have thought up yet.  Because online advertising is fluid and adaptable, measurable, and effective, I expect to see the slumping economy drive advertising dollars from traditional media to the online space — where cross-media budgets can be stretched with confidence in anticipated results.

And what is particularly exciting about this for me, and probably to most of you, is that this places online metrics– the quantification of the effectiveness of online marketing and media variables — at the epicenter of the industry’s growth, health, and well-being.  Which is as it should be.

Josh Chasin is chief research officer, comScore, Inc. He can be reached at