This year, after nearly 70 years of audited manual circulation counts, the out-of-home industry is shifting to an automated system of audience measurement from the Traffic Audit Bureau for Media Measurement.
The previous system required TAB member outdoor companies-which receive 95% of all outdoor ad dollars spent-to establish their own counting stations, or designated geographic areas in which their outdoor boards were located. The companies independently collected traffic information for those areas, usually from governmental sources and sometimes from hand counts when government data were outdated. Then they applied TAB conversion multiples to the number of cars or trucks that had passed by a specific area to determine the number of adults who viewed a particular billboard on any given day.
FRUSTRATING FOR BUYERS
The process was time-consuming and cumbersome for outdoor operators, which had to designate valuable staff resources to obtaining government data or physically counting cars and then tabulating viewing impressions from those data. It also was frustrating for advertisers and media buyers, who had to make sense of conflicting audience measures resulting from non-uniform counting areas.
"You had situations where, on the same segment of roadway, you might have different counts, either because the counts were done in different years or because one company claimed a secondary circulation (additional areas from which a board is visible to more people) and the other didn't for the same roadway," says TAB President Anna Fountas.
"The new process basically takes the audit preparation, which is the collection of the traffic counts, and automates it; it takes the [outdoor owners] out of it."
Even with the new system, the TAB retains its auditing function, which ensures that outdoor companies are accurately reporting the locations of their boards and panels for audience measurement. But whereas the old system required the TAB to audit each company separately, and often in different years, the new system-scheduled to be fully implemented by yearend-allows the association to do a marketwide audit at one time.
"It will level the playing field" from a selling standpoint, says John Luegering, VP-national sales at Norton Outdoor Advertising, Cincin-nati. "It will give us more of a standing with the advertising community by doing our audit this way."
Advertisers' primary concern is "that the circulation data that we provide them via the sign companies are accurate and audited," says John Connolly, senior VP and out-of-home media director at MediaCom, New York, the media buying arm of Grey Global Group.
"It was very frustrating to have advertisers interested in spending money on out-of-home, and when they asked for a location on a part of a highway, they were given different circulations," Mr. Connolly says.
In some cases, "the circulation was 50% higher from one [company's board] to the other, and they were literally on the same block. It's not exactly what you're looking for to build credibility with an advertiser," he adds.
The new system increases credibility because it uses software technology and standardized data. The TAB is partnering with Toronto-based TranSearch Group, a consultancy specializing in applying traffic engineering to outdoor ad research.
Using a software program, TranSearch designates specific road segments in each market-a process called geocoding-and assigns a traffic count to each of those segments by using the database of Data Metrix, a third-party supplier of traffic figures.
`QUALITY OF TRAFFIC COUNT'
"Any competitive operator will use the same count on the same stretch of road, so it's comparable," says Kelly McGillivray, VP of TranSearch. Outsourcing measurement "to a central source that knows how to do it is a really big benefit to the industry," Ms. McGillivray adds. "The quality of the traffic counts, as well as the consistency across the board, is very important."
It's especially important to advertisers, which are looking to out-of-home media for broad reach.
"Because of audience fragmentation that has occurred in other media, particularly broadcast, there has been increased interest on the part of advertisers in out-of-home, because it continues to be one of the few media to reach a mass audience," Ms. Fountas says. "There was a desire to provide information, on an agency side, that would allow them to more effectively sell out-of-home."