In a move with potentially broad implications for the digital marketing and media industry, NetRatings today launches a new Digital Media Universe system designed to measure consumer behavior across the "perpetual environment" of cyberspace.
According to NetRatings, the new data service, which compliments its existing audience measurement system, will be offered at no extra cost to marketer and agency clients.
The new system is designed to track consumer activities through a diverse constellation of online applications including Internet service provider applications such as those accessed through Earthlink, Juno and NetZero; wireless content systems such as AvantGo; Web phone vendors like CallWave and BuzzMe; weather, news and sports applications that sit on toolbars; instant messaging and media players; gaming sites such as The Zone on Microsoft Corp.'s MSN; auction and shopping assistants like Gator and eWallet; and Web
The company said the tool will also be able to track activites through proprietary services such as AOL and MSN and the individual channels that reside on those services.
Previously, NetRatings was only able to measure online consumer activity via browser and URL activity.
URL metrics less meaningful
The rapidly evolving online landscape and changing consumer habits are making such browser and URL metrics less meaningful. According to preliminary research by NetRatings, the percentage of people who use an Internet application but don't generate a URL request or activate a Web browser such as Internet Explorer or Netscape is close to 15%. In the month of August, NetRatings estimated that 140 million U.S. residents went online but only 122 million of them used a browser or generated a URL request.
Tamara Gaffney, director of product management for audience measurement at NetRatings likened the enhanced tracking to network TV vs. cable TV. Nielsen tracked network TV usage patterns but didn't track cable until cable became a significant audience force.
"We're going from what you can see through a standard Internet browser to all of the places a person can interact with the Web," she said.
51.5 million instant message users
For example, instant messaging, one of the most popular Web applications among consumers and one that marketers have been eyeing, engaged 51.5 million people in August, according to NetRatings. "That's a big number and it's just five applications," Ms. Gaffney noted. The figure includes the top five providers of instant messaging: America Online's Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ and Trillian.
If the NetRatings' new Digital Media Universe system works as planned, it has the potential to provide marketers with a much more comprehensive picture of consumer behavior online. It could also provide new information about how consumer patterns of online activity and interest are constantly evolving.
AOL Time Warner's America Online's vice president of research, Rande Price, praised the new Nielsen capabilities. She said the move is significant because it enables marketers to analyze Internet media on a more level playing field. "It's a tool to look at one total pie and get a one universe comparison," she said.
It is widely acknowledged that the growth of online advertising and marketing activities has been stymied by the difficulties marketers and agencies have encountered in measuring the reach, frequency and brand effectiveness of online campaigns.
The electronic life
Meanwhile, the heaviest online users -- children and young adults -- have begun to live in a nearly constant environment of online applications accessed through a rapidly expanding array of devices, services, systems and portals. Marketers must be able to monitor consumer activities across the same total electronic environment rather than any single application.
In effect, Ms. Gaffney said, marketers interested in reaching this prime audience must be able to coordinate their message and measure its results across a "perpetual enviornment."
"It's a different way of using advertising, but its reach and frequency dynamics are very impressive," she said.