Could TV Be Bought and Sold Based on Who's Talking About It? ESPN and CNN Think So

Aim to Lure Marketers With Data That Show Who Is Chatting Them Up

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NEW YORK ( -- Time Warner's CNN and Walt Disney's ESPN are grappling with the idea that a TV ad should not be judged solely by the number of people it reaches, but also by how many of the people who see it are spurred to share its message with others.

It's all well and good for a TV network to boast about the ability to lure a sizable crowd, but that's so old school. Today, marketers want to know what subset of that audience talked about their ad with other people, and if that conversation was a positive or negative one.

word of mouth
"The usual view is that in marketing, to achieve a certain goal or aim, the more word-of-mouth you have, the less advertising you need," said Graeme Hutton, director-consumer insights at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann. "We found, in fact, that media advertising quite clearly helped generate word-of-mouth."

CNN and ESPN are both working with independent social-media firm Keller Fay, which has since June of 2006 been surveying what CEO Ed Keller describes as a "rolling cross-section" of 700 consumers every week, totaling 36,000 a year. The respondents, between the ages of 13 and 69, are recruited to take notes on conversations they have in 15 different categories over a 24-hour period, then contacted again to answer questions about brands and companies they may have discussed. Keller Fay found that it has been able to track 7,000 brand mentions per week, or about 350,000 per year. The firm also works to identify the media outlets via which the commercial was viewed.

How might such data be used? CNN found that its network viewers had the most daily conversations about Toyota Motor's Lexus among cable outlets, according to data recently presented at an Advertising Research Foundation conference, and that people who make use of multiple CNN venues -- i.e. TV and web -- are four times more likely to speak about Lexus than the total population. Meanwhile, ESPN found that brands advertised during its NFL and college-football telecasts had what it said was a consistently higher level of word-of-mouth among users of ESPN media compared with non-users.

A new science
The data "gives us the ability to see which products and services our viewers are talking about more than the viewers of other networks and show that to our clients and prospects and demonstrate our value," said Greg Liebman, senior VP-ad sales research at CNN. ESPN sees a new science developing for the network, said Artie Bulgrin, senior VP-research and analytics. "We're learning a lot about the nuances of scheduling [advertisements] and how certain aspects of the schedule can affect" the ability to generate chatter by viewers about ads and brands, he said.

When three broadcast networks ruled the TV landscape, the ability to produce big-number audiences was the coin of the realm. Now that the broadcasters are sharing the land with dozens of cable outlets, those mass numbers are harder to produce, so advertisers and others are looking for new currency. With smaller audiences coalescing around niche programming, "getting to critical mass becomes much more difficult," Mr. Bulgrin said. So lacing in data about the quality of viewership is becoming more important as advertisers realize they are reaching fewer people at once when they advertise on TV.

Marketers and media outlets have attempted to carve out this path for some time. Starting in 2005, a number of the broadcast networks signed agreements with IAG Research, a company that measures recall of ads and product placements and is now owned by Nielsen. NBC and Toyota in 2006 struck a deal that called for the network to demonstrate that its viewers were able to recall particular details about a TV show, such as its storyline, in addition to the standard minimum-ratings guarantee based on Nielsen data. In the same year, Publicis Groupe's Starcom devised a pact with Weather Channel that called for minimum audience guarantees during ad breaks -- instead of programs -- in exchange for a greater allocation of ad dollars from certain Starcom clients.

The idea is that marketers are pressing to get beyond what is known in the industry as "boxcar" numbers based only on age and gender. With audiences flocking to subject-specific media -- liberal or conservative news and opinion, food, racing, weather -- advertisers can try to reach groups of consumers likely to be more interested in a particular commercial, rather than throw an ad against a massive wall of consumers and hope it sticks to some of them.

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