Let the data bombardment begin.
TV networks will blitz marketers at this year's upfronts with ad products that promise to deliver highly specific audiences and prove the efficiency of TV.
While some will improve marketers' ability to reach their consumers, they also have limits -- clunky systems, limited inventory and vague plans -- that will restrict just how far TV targeting will go this year.
Data is being relegated to the planning stages of TV buying for the most part, not being used to guarantee that certain targets will be reached, so the great majority of deals will still promise only traditional Nielsen age and sex demographics, according to media buyers and TV network executives.
"These press releases go out and then we call sales departments and they don't really have a game plan," said Steve Kalb, who leads national TV buying for Mullen. "Many of these products are not ready to see the light of day."
The industry is nonetheless a step ahead of last year, when just a few network groups were even discussing how data would play a role in negotiations. This time around nearly every programmer has some grand ambition for applying data at the negotiating table, or at least a half-baked idea to that effect.
They don't have much choice. Last year's lackluster upfront commitments for ad time in the coming season, followed by a soft market for commercials as the season progressed, has made it essential for TV networks to bring some of the sexiness of digital to TV.
"Advertisers have moved into digital for accountability. Now we are bringing accountability and results to TV," said Donna Speciale, president–ad sales, Turner Broadcasting, which has been cited by several media buyers as the leader in audience targeting. The parent of TBS and TNT took its first stab at audience-selling during last year's upfronts, when it completed deals with four agencies and eight advertisers. This year it will expand on these offerings by allowing clients to reach virtually any behavioral target across its networks and digital properties.
NBC Universal's sheer size makes it attractive for data-driven buys, according to buyers, as targeting typically works best when applied over a wide selection of inventory. There's also big appeal in the set-top box data held by Comcast, NBC Universal's parent company.
But several buyers said NBC Universal started publicizing its new Audience Targeting Platform before it was ready for them to use. Nor does it include that tantalizing Comcast set-top data. "They have the greatest potential to [use data] in a big way, but I don't think they are there yet," a media buyer said.
An NBC Universal spokeswoman said the company is rolling out the data product in earnest this month, starting with key clients. The platform will incorporate NBCU's own first-party data, information from third parties and some set-top box data, albeit not Comcast's, to identify top-performing inventory for certain ad categories across NBCU's TV networks, including NBC prime time.
CBS last week formally released a data effort, dubbed the Campaign Performance Audit, using data from the likes of Nielsen Catalina Solutions, Buyer Insights, MRI Fusion and Brand Effects plus proprietary data on ad effectiveness out of CBS' Television City facility in Las Vegas. The product is designed to provide advertisers with new measures of their ads' results.
At other network groups, Viacom's focus on amplifying advertisers' messages via social media has piqued interest. As part of Viacom Velocity, the full-service content-marketing division the company opened last year, Viacom offers clients a level of accountability and data insight when it comes to social-media reach.
Despite the challenges, most marketers and media buyers are eager to test the products, hungry for anything that will bring TV closer to the way they buy digital.
"In the past, using the data we have and data from our clients, we could identify the right shows and networks that best target the advertiser's core audience. But we couldn't transact in that way," said Michael Law, exec VP-managing director of video investment, Dentsu Aegis.
Cable networks typically sell commercial time by the time of day rather than specific shows, for example, making it difficult for buyers to use existing data to home in on their targets. "Data products from networks should make this more transactional," Mr. Law said.
Krishan Bhatia, exec VP-digital ad sales at NBCU, said its Audience Targeting Platform improves on agencies' existing capabilities because it allows clients to reallocate media spend throughout the year.
Programs like that "provide flexibility to go where the data tells you to go, which can change week to week or even day to day," said Dani Benowitz, exec VP-managing partner, integrated investment, UM.
ABC said it is focused on bringing solutions to the market that advance the capabilities agencies already have. "The initiatives we are developing, some of which we will announce over the coming months, are focused on enabling agency and advertising partners to benefit from data in new ways -- beyond program indexing or digital targeting with third-party data, which anyone can execute," said Geri Wang, president, ABC Sales. "Agencies don't need us to do that."
As anyone who has worked with data can tell you, information may be power, but it's work, too. Because every network approaches audience targeting a bit differently and has its own sets of first- and third-party data, ad buyers have to strive to compare sellers and create consistency, Mr. Law said.
Identifying advertisers' consumers within all the data and applying the results has also proven laborious. The biggest complication last year was working with clients to find their targets, according to Turner's Ms. Speciale. "It wasn't so simple," she said. "We needed to see if the sample size was big enough to make headway with it …. What we thought would be two to three days of phone calls was actually a four-to-six week process."
Neil Vendetti, exec VP-national video activation, Zenith, reported a similar experience. "We thought it would take a week or two, but it took months to identify the data, test it and apply it," he said.
Then data can only go as far as networks let it roam: Both Turner and NBCU are only offering about 30% of inventory to purchase in a targeted fashion.
And there can be a perception hurdle when the numbers tell brands something unexpected or unwelcome. "Even if the data says midnight is the best place for a brand to reach their target audience, advertisers are still hesitant to be on certain networks and in certain dayparts," Ms. Benowitz said.
But data in isolation really can be misleading. Just because a marketer finds its target consumers doesn't mean it has found them in the right place, said Jon Steinlauf, president-national ad sales and marketing at Scripps Networks. "There's a rush to audience buying and along the way [advertisers] may have forgotten about the importance of context," he said. "Not every message is received the same way. It's what's around the message."
"Some of that audience buying," Mr. Steinlauf said, "is going to backfire on a few people."