Unless you are steeped in the world of asset management and financial services, you likely have heard very little about Cogent Reports -- the company surprisingly hired by CNBC to track its daytime viewership instead of Nielsen.
The market research firm, part of Market Strategies International, provides research to asset managers to help them better reach and build media plans that target investors and financial advisors.
But now Cogent is branching out from its niche client base and is looking to translate its research to the media world, starting with its pact with CNBC. Beginning in the fourth quarter of this year, the company will provide the cable news network with audience measurement for its "Business Day" programming. And it says it's open to providing similar services for other TV networks.
"We aren't trying to replicate what Nielson does," said Christy White, managing director of Cogent Reports. "We will be conducting active reporting measurement that relies on the principles of statistical sampling and consumer recall and behavior."
That's good enough for CNBC, which long complained that Nielsen does a poor job of counting viewers outside the home -- such as in offices where CNBC plays all day. But reverting to estimates from little-known Cogent Reports might not do the trick for ad buyers.
"I applaud them for seeking out alternatives to simply relying on Nielsen, but this doesn't seem nearly robust enough for us to negotiate on," said David Campanelli, senior VP-national broadcast, Horizon Media. "If it was a supplement, maybe, but not on its own, at least for most advertisers. There will be the endemics that will buy the network either way, but a general advertiser will likely shy away now."
The big question is how the data will be collected and which advertisers will consider it sufficient.
Cogent's basic approach is to conduct web surveys of about 1,200 financial professionals and investors asking them about their media consumption behaviors and preferences. Ms. White said Cogent's more than 20-year history researching this audience gives it confidence in its ability to pull a statisticually representative sample.
Cogent sends its web surveys on a weekly basis asking about media consumption over the previous week, specifically looking at which business and financial news people say they are watching, how many minutes they watched those programs and whether they are watching at home or elsewhere and on what devices.
Cogent will provide program-level data that projects total audiences among financial advisors and affluent Americans and breaks down age and sex demographics within that pool.
As Nielsen and others try to move toward more direct observation of viewership, survey-based measurement is raising some concern among media buyers. "It's like we are going back in time," said Catherine Warburton, chief investment officer, Assembly.
One worry, for example, is that surveying workers whose offices play CNBC might result in a sort of false positive -- responses that suggest viewership even if the TV screen is actually rarely a focus.
For advertisers the move also means learning an unfamiliar and unproven measurement metric.
Mr. Campanelli said the out-of-home viewers that Nielsen hasn't captured are already baked into CNBC ad rates, or CPMs. "CNBC has had the out-of-home viewing issue for years and I would agree with them that it is not properly measured, that their ratings are higher than Nielsen gives them credit for," Mr. Campanelli said. "However, CNBC has also carried a premium CPM in part because of the upscale audience they reach, but also in part because the advertiser is paying for those out-of-home viewers that we know exist, but aren't captured."
For all that, a network like CNBC, where advertisers are buying a very specific audience, may be able to move to a new measurement without meaningfully disrupting business, Ms. Warburton said.
While this will be the first time Cogent will provide program-level data for a specific media company, the company has been measuring media consumption and reach of TV networks like ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and ESPN predominantly for its asset manager clients for several years.
And once it begins providing this data to CNBC in the fourth quarter, Ms. White said they are ready, willing and able to work with other TV networks to provide more specific program measurement.
Of course, its sample of the financial community may not be relevant to some larger entertainment networks who have a very broad reach, but Ms. White said other channels like Fox Business News and Bloomberg TV could benefit from its sample.
While Bloomberg is not currently measured by Nielsen, Fox Business is and doesn't intend to switch. Paul Rittenberg, exec VP-advertising, said, "Only using the numbers you like is a little tough to sell."