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Audience Measurement In An Age Of Chaos

Audience measurement has never been easy, but over the last decade or so the complexity of it has reached absurdist proportions.

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By Tom Ewing

I saw a presentation last year about digital audience measurement of the Olympics. First of all the presenter showed a slide about the 2004 Olympics, and it showed a single line – web traffic to highlights sites. Then up came the 2008 Games. Three criss-crossing lines, for smartphones, and web visits, and streaming video. And then the 2012 Games. Mobile web, mobile apps, tablets, streaming video, web visits… the graph had become a thicket of lines. Our visuals for measuring a newly wireless world were uncomfortably, ironically reminiscent of the tangled cluster of device leads around every 00s TV.

Audience measurement has never been easy, but over the last decade or so the complexity of it has reached absurdist proportions. Not only must you measure across a range of channels which grows by the year, you have to get to grips with how those channels interact – and that’s even before you start worrying about effectiveness.

So it’s fascinating to look at the program for a conference like the ARF’s Audience Measurement 8.0 – happening in New York next month  – and see how researchers and channel owners are reacting to this complexity.

Some are gamely embracing it – there are plenty of presentations on second-screening and the unstoppable rise of mobile. As “Mobile Is Eating The World”, an excellent set of slides from Enders Analysis points out, mobile is not simply a shift from one platform to another: it’s an unprecedented and colossal shift in scale for global audiences. The audience measurement industry is further ahead in dealing with this than most parts of the research business.

But more complexity can’t always be the answer. The human mind is not wired to deal with complexity – and this is as true of media buyers and CEOs as it is of audiences. There is a desperate need for simplicity – research which can cut through that thicket of lines, boiling down people’s disparate media activity into easy, useful killer metrics.

This next stage in the measurement game isn’t here yet, but it’s coming, and many of the most interesting presentations at Audience Measurement 8.0 look to anticipate it. The first day Keynote is striking this note of optimism – Starcom MediaVest talking about the need for convergence. Some look to Big Data as the game-changer here – take this interesting bit of speculation, Why Google Will Crush Nielsen, as an example. The argument being Google will win because it can integrate user behavior so completely.

It’s a possibility – but they aren’t the only player. As I type, my Twitter feed is full of reaction to the announcement of the Xbox One, a possible fruition of the long-anticipated “one box to rule them all” convergent living room device. A simplifier for consumers, perhaps – but just another thing to measure for researchers.

As for effectiveness, the picture from Audience Measurement 8.0 is more mixed. Facebook promise “census-level” data which links marketing to outcomes, but elsewhere it’s a familiar story of new technology meeting old assumptions. A presentation promising to reveal “how much entertainment in advertising is too much” is barking up a very old, rotten tree in a world where switching and skipping has never been easier.

But the job of conferences is to reveal every angle on a problem, not just the ones you agree with already. As one presentation puts it, we are living in an “Age of Chaos”. The ARF’s new CEO, Gayle Fuguitt, is revamping the ARF’s conference offerings to bring them up to date in a scarier world – it looks like Audience Measurement 8.0 is a big step in that direction.

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