Online measurement is broken. That, few would dispute. But how to fix it? Three of the biggest advertising trade organizations are banding together with 40 marketers, agencies and publishers to give it another try.
They're launching a new effort dubbed "3MS," short for "Making Measurement Make Sense," to create new standards for how digital advertising is measured, bought and sold -- aiming to have digital ads measured in ways easily comparable to other media, and creating a level playing field that 's never existed through 16 years of online advertising.
Among changes to be tested:
- Redefining an online ad impression from any ad served to a screen to counting only impressions where at least half the ad is visible for at least a second.
- Developing a third-party online audience-measurement system that can be used as a currency in media deals, akin to what TV, radio and print long have had.
- Defining a common set of online display and video ad formats to give buyers a better idea of they types of inventory that exist and what value they should command.
"Making Measurement Make Sense" is a project of the Association of National Advertisers, Interactive Advertising Bureau and 4A's, along with a an impressive list of backers, including Google, AT&T, Coca-Cola, CBS, Group M, ESPN, Omnicom, Microsoft, Starcom MediaVest Group, New York Times and others. The Newspaper Association of America and Online Publishers Association are also involved.
"Digital, which we always thought was going to be the most measurable medium, turned out to be the least measureable," said ANA CEO Bob Liodice. "It's bad for the digital industry because marketers are gun shy from not understanding the rate of return."
Arguably, digital media has always offered better data than others for some marketers and uses -- such as clickthrough and other performance metrics. But it hasn't offered the precision in audience measurement that brand advertisers need to compare the effectiveness of digital ads to other media, Mr. Liodice said.
Helping with the 3MS project has been the Media Ratings Council, which accredits and oversees TV and radio ratings from Nielsen and Arbitron, and has accredited digital audience measurement by Quantcast (for overall audience numbers, but not demographic breakdowns) and Nielsen (for online "gross rating points").
But another offshoot of the 3MS initiative is likely to be a new body independent from any industry stakeholders to oversee issues with digital media measurement, Mr. Liodice said.
Discussions about 3MS began among leaders of the three industry groups late last year, leading them to hire Bain & Co. and Medialink as consultants to develop a roadmap in February. After announcing a set of principles to guide the effort in June, 3MS plans to launch the pilots during the first quarter of 2012.
The plan is to wrap up the pilots by the second quarter and, assuming they go as planned, move to an industry-wide "soft launch" of the new standards before the end of next year, said Sherrill Mane, senior VP-industry services for the IAB.
In that soft launch, the new standards would operate alongside existing ones for an indefinite period to find and work out any other kinks. Ms. Mane compared the soft-launch process to the adoption of people meters to replace written diaries for measuring TV and radio audiences.
While the new standards have considerable potential for creating winners and losers among research vendors and media, each pilot will be open to all parties willing and able to participate. "We can't be in the business of creating a monopoly," said one person familiar with the process.
But industry standards and certifications ultimately have helped produce monopolies in media audience currencies -- Nielsen in TV, Arbitron in radio and the industry's Audit Bureau of Circulations for print.
Last week, Nielsen became the first researcher to get MRC certification for its new TV-style online gross ratings points (GRP) system, including demographic ratings .
Ms. Mane, however, pointed out that MRC-certified systems from Quantcast and Nielsen were based on the existing impression standard of the ad being served, and would need to be re-evaluated should the industry shift to the new, stricter impression standard to be piloted.
One key issue in testing the new impression standard is whether available technology can effectively measure viewership of 50% of an ad for one second on a computer screen, she said.
Mr. Liodice compared the new online-impression standard to Nielsen C3 TV ratings , which count commercial audiences only for programs viewed live or on DVR within three days. As with C3, Mr. Liodice said, "We may not get all the way to perfect, but we may come up with something that is reasonably close."
Mobile and social-media measurement are also on the 3MS agenda longer term, Mr. Liodice said. "My sense is that mobile will be less difficult than social."
While better audience measurement could lead to more ad dollars coming into digital, Mr. Liodice said, he added "there are no guarantees." Ultimately, analysis based on better audience data could lead to digital proving less effective than other media, or only certain formats on certain sites performing well, driving revenue up for some but down for others.