X Marks the iSpot: Ad-Tracking Firm Measures Real-Time Impressions

As Data Heats Up, a New Method of Counting Commercial Views Emerges

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Sean Muller
Sean Muller Credit: iSpot.tv
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TV ad-tracking firm iSpot.tv is adding a new wrinkle to its proprietary service, introducing a feature set that allows marketers to track how their commercials are faring in real time.

After cutting deals with manufacturers to embed its software in the guts of new smart TV sets, iSpot has a base of some 10 million screens from which it can monitor real-time impressions and ad-completion rates in live and time-shifted viewing. In other words, if a viewer checks out of a Geico ad she's seen dozens of times before, iSpot can pinpoint to the second when the spot is zipped or zapped.

The real-time data deliveries would seem to be of particular interest to marketers looking to assess the impact a new campaign is having in its initial rollout. Rather than wait three weeks for Nielsen to generate C3 ratings for a given program in which an advertiser's spot aired, the iSpot software offers what amounts to immediate feedback on total ad impressions and completion rates.

"One of the things we're always hearing from our clients is that they need to be responsive, which means they need to have data back immediately," said iSpot co-founder and CEO Sean Muller. "Brands want to apply the immediacy of digital to television. Because you can make quicker and better decisions when you have the data faster as opposed to getting it three, four, five weeks down the road."

Actionable data is particularly crucial in the early stages of a campaign inasmuch as it allows a marketer to change course if viewers begin demonstrating a marked aversion to the creative. "You can see the wear-off," Mr. Muller said. "When people are really starting to get so sick of [a commercial] and the view rate is just dropping, you now have time to respond. That's the beauty of the whole thing. It's not like you're looking at this four weeks later when it's too late to do anything about it."

Along with tracking completion rates -- iSpot breaks consumption into quartiles, measuring viewing for the first 25% of the ad, then the first half, and on into completion -- the company can demonstrate which networks are better environments for a given category or an individual ad. Take movies, for example. In the fourth quarter, ads for the 17 studios generated 53.7 billion impressions across 101 TV networks, of which 40 billion, or 75%, were delivered live. More than one-third (34%) of all movie teaser impressions were served up by just five networks (NBC, ESPN, ABC, CBS, TBS), with an average view rate of 86%, which was down just a tick when compared to the view rate for the entire category (87%). Across all channels, the average completion rate for movie ads in the quarter was 79%.

The iSpot data also allows advertisers to track view rates as a function of the networks on which a given spot aired. For example, ads for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" put up their highest view rates on NFL Network (92%), Disney XD (92%) and Nickelodeon (91%). Incidentally, NFL Net may be one of the most strategically sound buys on the tube, as 98% of its commercial deliveries are live, and 80% of the ads it telecasts are viewed to completion.

Clients can adjust the parameters of each search to bracket a specific campaign. For instance, an automaker looking to track the last 30 days of commercial activity would see that car creative in the last month accounted for 7% of all ad impressions. Per iSpot, 32 automakers spent $700.9 million on national airtime, which garnered 32.2 billion impressions, of which 22.4 billion, or 70%, were live. The average view rate for car spots in the period was 86%, and the completion rate was 75%. (The median completion rate across all categories is around 82%, according to Mr. Muller.)

Drill down to individual commercials and you're going to see some significant deviations in the view rates. Without naming any names, one comical spot for a sporty import eked out a meager 68% view rate -- if nothing else, this suggests that the gag may have grown stale since the ad premiered; such is the risk of deploying a jokey campaign -- while the top performer in the category boasted a rate north of 96%. (In the 30-day period, one of the stickiest auto spots delivered a completion rate of 92%; only 1% of those exposed to the 60-second ad bailed out within the first 15 seconds.)

Over the course of the last month, the brands that secured the highest completion rates in the category were Ford (93%), Lexus (89%) and Dodge Ram (84%).

If nothing else, the iSpot data demonstrates that there's no such thing as a level playing field in advertising. "We'll see about a 25% to 30% variation in audience and impressions within the same program, depending on how good the creative is and its position within the pod," he said. "So every ad has a different level of audience and engagement, yet as far as C3 measurement is concerned, they're all being assigned the same value. And that's just not true or accurate."

While set-top boxes would seem to be able to track second-by-second commercial activity in much the same way, Mr. Muller says that a number of inherent inefficiencies make that return-path data less than ideal. "Like with C3, set-top data is still several weeks delayed," he said. "Even worse, it tends to be demographically skewed, as it's typically tied to a specific operator, and you never really know if the TV's on or off, or if anyone is actually watching it."

Having rejected the set-top box as a viable platform, iSpot went all-in on its embedded screen-based measurement initiative, which places its software directly into the firmware of the IP-enabled TV set, allowing it to track ad content as it is rendered on the screen, regardless of its origin. No matter if the set is hooked up to a cable box, an over-the-air antenna, or a next-gen device like Apple TV or Roku, iSpot can monitor the commercial activity.

After a year of setting up deals with manufacturers and then integrating its software into their sets, iSpot last year launched its ad-performance measurement service in private beta. After six months of kicking the tires and generating data, the company is now bringing the product to market, and just in time for Super Bowl sponsors to get a real-time read on how their pricey ad buys performed.

Mr. Muller says that while iSpot offers a more comprehensive and immediate view of commercial activity than the C3 currency provides, the service isn't looking to encroach upon Nielsen's ratings monopoly. "We're providing measurement that is simply not available in the marketplace today," he said. "View-rate data is something that you can't get from Nielsen or anywhere else, and we're also providing unduplicated measurement across linear and over-the-top, on the ad level, and in real time. So I guess the question becomes, is Nielsen going to try and compete in those arenas. Who knows? I mean, we don't really spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. We are focused on the measurement that we're providing and what the brands are asking for."

Among the sectors represented on iSpot's client roster are a clutch of TV networks (ABC, ESPN, A&E, Tennis Channel), film studios (Paramount Pictures, Focus Features, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios, STX Entertainment, Sony) and telcos (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile). Since launching in 2012, the company has drummed up $27.8 million in VC funding.