Advertisers have been clamoring for years for a way to measure online audiences comparable to TV. After a process that 's taken more than a decade, they're poised to get it, along with something they never had for TV ratings : competition.
Last year Nielsen got Media Rating Council accreditation for its Online Campaign Ratings (OCR) system, which uses anonymous Facebook data to deliver age and sex demographics and gross rating points similar to TV. That raises the prospect of another monopoly for Nielsen, which many advertisers already complain doesn't accurately measure TV.
Enter ComScore. Five years into its own efforts to get MRC accreditation for online-audience measurement based on its panel of 2 million people worldwide, the company is closing in on its goal to rival Nielsen online ratings and creating a measurement arms race in the online space.
ComScore's program, Validated Campaign Essentials (VCE), could one-up Nielsen by incorporating a "viewability" measure to ensure that ads are delivered in a way that allows people to see at least 50% of the pixels for at least one second. That's a standard the advertising industry's Making Measurement Make Sense initiative (3MS) has been seeking along with online GRPs.
VCE has gone through a pre-audit process with the MRC, with favorable results, said ComScore Chief Research Officer Josh Chasin. He expects a formal audit by mid-April, paving the way for an MRC vote on accreditation.
If accredited, VCE would seemingly provide everything the 3MS group (a joint project of the Association of National Advertisers, Interactive Advertising Bureau and 4A's) has sought in online-audience measurement.
Meanwhile, a viewability measure for Nielsen's system still needs vetting by the MRC. Steve Hasker, Nielsen's president of media products and advertiser solutions, said that the company is preparing to test the addition of such a metric this month. He said the metric hasn't been a major issue for clients.
According to ComScore, P&G, Allstate, Chrysler, Discover, E-Trade, Ford, Forbes, General Mills, Kellogg Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp., Kraft, Beiersdorf, Ralph Lauren, Sprint and Telefonica have tried VCE.
The issue is development of a system that lets advertisers buy reach and frequency online the same way they do for TV -- based on age, sex and geographic demographics. Nielsen has the advantage that about half its national TV panel homes measure both TV and internet usage. Though that Cross-Platform Homes Panel is too small to provide accurate audience measures for most websites, it's used to analyze cross-platform viewership and provide "extended screen ratings " across multiple screens.
Getting TV-comparable ratings doesn't by itself measure online advertising's impact on sales or other objectives, said Sherrill Mane, senior VP-research, analytics and measurement of IAB, who has spearheaded work by 3MS. Direct-response advertisers have their own ways of measuring ROI.
But an MRC-accredited system to measure audiences with demographics and viewability standards similar to TV's would put online advertising on a level playing field when brand advertisers -- which don't sell many products directly online -- are planning and buying media or evaluating ROI using marketing-mix models, Ms. Mane said.
Regardless of what the MRC does, 3MS is launching pilots of both systems this month using public-service announcements from the Ad Council to look at online audience ratings and ad viewability metrics.
"It's too soon to tell" whether viewability can be measured the way 3MS envisions, Ms. Mane said, though she said that she welcomes ComScore's effort to incorporate that into its ratings .
Not surprisingly, Nielsen and ComScore have plenty of criticism for each other's methodologies.
Nielsen rejected the kind of panel-only approach that ComScore is using and Nielsen used in the past, John Burbank, president of Nielsen Strategic Initiatives, said in a presentation at the Advertising Research Foundation's Re:Think conference in New York last month. The web's fragmentation and individualized ads mean that "a panel of virtually any size wouldn't be able to provide accurate data, and it wouldn't be able to provide fast data," he said.
Instead, Nielsen formed a partnership with Facebook to tap its user data to supplement panels. OCR tags each ad and records anonymously but with age-sex information when the ad is viewed by a Facebook user.
Mr. Chasin sees flaws in Nielsen's system. One is that ComScore research has identified many cases where its panelists using home computers are logged into the Facebook accounts of other household members, thwarting the counting of age-sex demos. The other is that Nielsen uses one online competitor to measure audiences of others.
"Can you imagine if [Nielsen TV ratings ] relied on ABC?" Mr. Chasin said. "What would CBS have to say about that ? Maybe I'm a little old school, but I think there are lines. You can't be a player and a ref in the same game. "
Mr. Burbank said that Nielsen is working to add other industry players as data partners, including Google, and uses its panel to weed out cases where the wrong Facebook user might be counted.
However the counting gets done, advertisers appear to benefit. Unilever gets much more detail from Nielsen's online ratings than it could before, said Patti Wakeling, director-global media insights at Unilever, in a presentation at Re:Think.
"What we're able to do with this data now is to dig deep and see who within our audience is receiving the most-targeted messaging," Ms. Wakeling said. "That enables us to go back into the data and balance it out, understand who we're missing and eventually come up with an alternative plan."
She declined to answer a Coca-Cola executive's question about whether Unilever had found better ROI with online or TV, saying that the focus first is using OCR to improve the reach and frequency performance of online buys against target demos.