Online measurement debate produces more questions than answers

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Despite online's reputation as the most measurable of all media, marketers continue to grapple with how much to invest in the medium because of the sheer abundance of data generated and the myriad ways to measure the information.

"There are too many ways to look at it," said Steve Wadsworth, president of Walt Disney Internet Group, who delivered the state of the industry address at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's first Audience Measurement Leadership Forum on Nov. 29 in New York. "It's too confusing. We're awash in data. It's not simple, and it's not clear."

Manish Bhatia, president-global services and U.S. sales at Nielsen Online, called it "a problem of plenty."

Panelists from the major online measurement firms, including comScore Networks, Hitwise, Nielsen Online and Quantcast Corp., a new entrant, discussed the differences and merits of both panel-based and server-based, or sitecentric, data, in a day filled with more questions than answers. Some measurement companies are working toward a hybrid model that incorporates both types of data.

"We combine panels and pixels," said Konrad Feldman, CEO of Quantcast. "I think the future is one in which the industry collaborates to get data that everyone can agree on. People want simplicity in the way they buy media."

Wadsworth suggested that the Internet requires an entirely new approach.

"Marketers are very savvy," he said. "We need to help them solve the problem by giving them metrics in a way that they can compare it to other media. But we're jamming a new paradigm into the existing box.

"We have to decide whether we are going to track this medium in a way that is similar to other media or are we going to create a new method."

Some advertisers support a new method rather than the traditional, media-based approach of counting size of audience. They also want a change in dialogue.

"We need to change the way we have the conversation about data," said Stephen Kim, global marketing director at Microsoft Corp. As a marketer, Kim said he spends an "eight-figure sum of money" every year to drive demand for Microsoft products. "As an advertiser, I'm not buying audiences. I'm buying impressions and I'm buying clicks."

Kim said the solution, whatever it may be, needs to be clear.

"Give me the one KPI [key performance indicator] that tells me if I'm spending well," he said.

"That is something both on the publisher and advertiser side we need to start talking about publicly. We have not only plenty, but we have ambiguity."

Kim said multiple data sets "won't all line up, but we need to work them collectively in ways that matter. The days of GRPs [gross rating points] and other metrics as a single [measurement] metric are obviously changing. It's only going to get more complicated as advertising continues to fragment."

Kim added that it's "not just about metrics but about creating the language and the process that we work with."

Lawrence DiCapua, a senior marketing manager who oversees CRM at Pepsi-Cola North America, agreed. "We do need to look for a new way to measure," he said. "We shouldn't look to traditional media as a set of metrics to model. It has to be bigger."

Josh Chasin, chief research officer at comScore, agreed that a single, one-size-fits-all approach won't cut it. "The history is for a single currency standard," he said.

"In each medium, there is typically one standard that most people in the industry use." For example, the currency standard in print is MRI (Mediamark Research Inc.), he said. However, that approach is not realistic for Web measurement, he said.

"I believe the economics of measurement in digital media are profoundly different than analog media," Chasin said. "The marketplace has been supporting more than one currencylike service."

Kim said he'd like to see competition between the major measurement companies persist. "We want to focus on who has the best data," he said. "We think that's good, especially as the business continues to evolve."

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