CMO's Guide to Measurement

Now That GRPs are Everywhere, Some Don't Want Them Anywhere. But Maybe You Should

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A CMO Roundtable at ANA's Masters of Marketing conference debated the value of GRPs.
A CMO Roundtable at ANA's Masters of Marketing conference debated the value of GRPs. Credit: ANA
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It's been four years since advertising industry groups joined to form the Making Measurement Make Sense (3MS) initiative, and nearly 18 months since Association of National Advertisers CEO Bob Liodice called for a "measurement mandate" to improve the state of accountability. So what's changed?

Plenty, actually.

The industry's long struggle to develop a common standard for measuring audiences across media has coalesced around the gross rating point, the measure based on age and gender demographics long used for TV ratings and increasingly used to measure audiences for digital and outdoor. By year end, Nielsen expects to roll out its Total Audience measurement, which similarly applies GRPs to all manner of media, both "owned" (e.g., your website) and "earned" (i.e., free social distribution).

Marketers who wanted proof that their digital ads actually were seen now have not only digital viewability standards, but rigorous competition from more than 20 firms accredited by the Media Rating Council to measure them. And the industry's call for more options in measurement was answered with last month's announcement that ComScore and Rentrak plan to merge. That deal could increase chances of competition for Nielsen in what remains a crucial industry measurement tool—TV ratings.

But that's far from good enough for some marketers and agencies, the ones that decry the minimalist digital viewability standards or complain about relying on a creaky old metric like GRPs.

The problem may lie partly in the longtime struggle of researchers toiling in measurement and analytics arcana to explain to their bosses why measuring seemingly simple things is so hard. There may also be misunderstanding over the difference between metrics that are practical to use for doing media deals and those needed to build and measure the success of marketing plans. They're not necessarily the same, and ideally marketers want to pay as little as possible for the former while maximizing delivery of the latter.

What metric should you use?

Now that the industry is using GRPs across multiple media, so marketers can buy using CPM (cost per thousand) ad rates, some marketers still say it's an outmoded system they'd just as soon do without. "Some of our data partners are trying to move back to impressions and GRPs," said Deborah Wahl, CMO of McDonald's USA, at a CMO Roundtable during the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference in October. "We don't want to go there." Lisa Donohue, CEO of Starcom USA, agreed: "We keep going back to surrogate measurements and currency," she said, while more advanced attribution modeling would advise buying otherwise.

But realistically, GRPs and CPMs remain the way TV is bought and sold, and the way a lot of digital and other media can be bought and sold. TV networks are likely to resist programmatic buying as long as possible. Rather than reinvent the traditional media marketplace, industry associations opted to apply the old metrics to new media.

Thus, you need two sets of books

Transacting deals in GRPs doesn't mean that's the only measurement used. Nielsen Catalina Solutions, TRA and others merge purchase data from shopper cards or other purchase databases with media usage data to segment TV or other media audiences according to their buying characteristics—not age and sex demographics—or even to track the offline sales results from campaigns. Outside of programmatic trading, for now largely limited to digital inventory, it's impossible to conclude deals using thousands of customized consumer segments as currency.

That doesn't mean a deal can't still be transacted in GRP currency, then optimized and tracked using more sophisticated tools that draw upon purchase or other behavioral data. Sure, it's hard to believe many marketers still build plans around targeting a group as broad as women ages 18 to 49. But that doesn't mean the deal can't be done on those terms, and a plan made with input from analytical tools that find media choices delivering, say, the most premium pet-food buyers at the lowest cost. Those latter tools, by the way, probably aren't MRC accredited, making it much harder to get buyers and sellers to agree on using them as currency.

Viewability matters, sort of

One of the industry's most heated, and convoluted, arguments pertains to viewability. The MRC standard for digital display ads to be called viewable requires that at least 50% of the pixels be in view for at least a second—two seconds for video. A viewability standard for mobile remains in the works, expected, perhaps optimistically, by year end. Naturally, many marketers and agency executives see that as a ridiculously low bar.

A more nuanced view might clear things up, or even save marketers money.

The MRC's viewability measure was partly meant to put digital ads on an equal footing with TV, counting as an impression any ad people have "an opportunity to see." That allows both media to be measured using GRPs. The implication is that if people have an opportunity to see an ad and skip it, that's the fault of the creative, not the medium. Mimimalist or no, some advertisers have privately conceded that their campaign impact declined when they eliminated all technically "non-viewable" impressions. In other words, even exposure more fleeting than required by the MRC standard may actually have some impact. The flip side is that, just as marketers get "free" value from time-shifted TV viewing that occurs outside the three-day C3 or seven-day C7 ratings windows, they may also now get some value from ads that are served but rated "unviewable."

Marketers happily don't have to stand for media grading their own tests, either: Under pressure from advertisers and agencies, even the mighty Facebook and Google have moved toward allowing third-party verification of ad viewability.

Still, even if YouTube wasn't letting in third parties before, it was offering a pretty good deal. Widely hated as pre-roll ads on YouTube may be, they run for at least five seconds, and marketers need not pay for ads that run under 30 seconds before they're skipped. Geico and the Martin Agency won a Cannes Grand Prix for an ad featuring "the unskippable family" in an ad that ostensibly finished in five seconds, but kept people around with a sight gag for the other 60 seconds. In one sense, the joke may have been on Geico when people stayed past 30 seconds, and it had to pay Google.