"We're in the year 2001. Can't we get some better technology?" asks David Marans, senior partner at WPP Group's media agency MindShare.
Mr. Marans and other media mavens voice frustration at the speed of progress in measuring the audiences of magazine, radio and television programming. For the most part, the industry continues to rely on the authority of third party services-Mediamark Research (MRI), Arbitron and Nielsen-for determining the audience data that is considered "currency" for a media buy. But media executives want more and more audience data from those services, such as additional demographic details, minute-by-minute ratings, ratings for ads as well as editorial content, a broader picture of the media each audience member consumes, and a measure of an ad's impact. In response, MRI, Arbitron and Nielsen are making headway, but at a cautious rate so as not to compromise the methods currently in place.
"From an analytical side we'd really like more data, but that puts more of a burden on the respondent, which then lowers the quality of data you are going to get," says Tony Jarvis, senior VP-director of strategic insights at Grey Global Group's MediaCom Worldwide.
MRI, which now measures the readership of 240 magazines by conducting about 26,000 personal interviews with consumers each year, is under pressure to add more titles to its study. Rather than risk overburdening its respondents with queries on additional titles, MRI created MRI+. The service links advertisers and agencies with information provided by publishers on unmeasured magazines. "MRI+ is a short-term solution that allows publishers to communicate more effectively, but it's not measurement," noted Kathi Love, president-CEO of MRI.
In October, MRI released a new study on magazine velocity, measuring how fast new magazines accumulate their target readership. Ms. Love says it will allow advertisers to use magazines in the same way they currently use television as a medium for reaching target audiences on an issue-by-issue basis.
At Arbitron, consumer diaries are employed to measure radio audiences. But a tool that has been in development for 10 years could soon take the burden off respondents when it comes to tracking listening habits. Arbitron's Portable People Meters are pager-sized scanners that panel respondents wear all day. The meters detect embedded audio codes to determine consumers' media diets. The technology is now being tested in Wilmington, Del., and slated to roll out to the whole Philadelphia market in early 2002.
Nielsen uses a combination of diaries and meters to measure TV viewership. For measurement of 210 local market audiences, respondents complete diaries. As an incentive to participate, Nielsen recently began mailing compensation to homes in advance and sending diaries in priority mail envelopes that stand out from other pieces of mail. In the Boston market, meters are replacing measurement by diary. Nielsen plans to expand the local meter service to nine more markets over the next three years.
All 5,000 households that make up Nielsen's national sample are measured by meter already. Though meters are desirable over diaries for being more passive measurement tools that are capable of capturing fine details in the data, they, too, have limitations. For example, Nielsen finds that metered measurement suffers during the holidays when some participating consumers unplug equipment to make room for a Christmas tree, or install a newly purchased TV or VCR.
Thirsty for still more audience data than research services are providing today, media agencies are creating their own tools that analyze the data provided by companies such as MRI, Arbitron and Nielsen, as well as tools that gather audience information beyond what the third party services provide.
"A lot of information we need is too specific per client to expect a third party to be able to do that. We'll use the syndicated research as currency to trade, but there will be a high degree of intelligent, proprietary information we supplement to our clients' advantage," says Mark Stewart, exec VP and North America media director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann.
Optimizer tools are modeling programs many agencies use to essentially sift through "currency" data and determine the best media buy for reaching a client's target audience. Both MediaCom's Mr. Jarvis and Ira Sussman, exec VP and director of IM Futures at Interpublic's Initiative Media, say MRI's new velocity study provides important data for agencies using print or multimedia optimizers. The information produced by optimizers, however, is only as good as the currency data that is put into them, executives says.
The holy grail of tools, many executives say, does not yet exist, but it would collect data about the audience for all media from a single source. Third-party providers are edging closer: MRI now conducts TV studies, and Arbitron's Portable People Meter detects Internet and TV audio signals as well as radio. However, noted Stu Gray, senior VP and media resource director of Omnicom's BBDO Worldwide, New York: "There are no databases that provide the currency for more than one media."
Until that single source tool is created, some agency executives are practicing "fusion," or crossing the currency-quality databases from two different media measurement companies to create a pseudo-single source of information. The procedure is still in its early stages in the U.S. Leslie Wood, chairman of the Advertising Research Foundation's Media Methods Committee, is heading a nine-month "Fusion Lab" with support from several agencies, media companies and third parties to explore fusion's potential.
On top of quantitative measures, agencies are also employing tools that add more qualitative data-such as consumer attentiveness and attitude-to the media planning and buying process. "In our business there is now a balance between the qualitative side and the quantitative side, even though traditionally it's been more about the quant side," says Mr. Stewart of Universal McCann. "In both areas there's a need for it to be used as guidance and illumination, rather than the gospel."