When I initially agreed to become iMedia’s Media Strategies editor, the mission set before me was to scout ahead and try to make sense of the current media landscape, as well as to look at the fuzzy edges of the future and lend them some definition.
Today, I want to discuss the importance of a metric from advertising’s past to better understand something that is important to online advertising’s present: the role of ratings.
There are many outspoken critics of the notion that ratings can or should be applied to online advertising. Many of the most vocal are those marketing and advertising professionals who have been steeped only in the young but consuming tradition of internet advertising and media.
To them, it makes no sense to rely on a metric -- one that is deemed inadequate as it is currently applied to the pastiche of other media -- for quantifying a technology-driven medium capable of being quantified in so many other ways.
The argument goes that the mathematical constituents of a rating point (reach times frequency) do not correlate directly with the actions advertising is supposed to instigate.
This is a sensible assessment when the concept of ratings is looked at with a narrow view towards strict accountability, and where accountability is only defined in terms of audience action taken. In a climate where continued cost pressures have made return on investment of primary concern, asking tough questions about the capability of the metrics we use for establishing -- or helping to define -- accountability is important.
Nielsen Media Research has itself acknowledged the importance of accountability and the need for a better ratings model with the launch of Project Apollo. In partnership with Arbitron, Project Apollo is an effort to get a better handle on the real points of media contact people have throughout their day. Panelists are outfitted with "pagers" that act as receivers of sub-aural codes electronically embedded into electronic broadcast media, tracking and recording what electronic media panelists were exposed to during their day. Before going to bed, the panelists will place the “people meter” into a docking station to be synched with a database that will collect and collate the data from all the panelists for analysis. It is an attempt at getting a better handle on where media exposure happens and how much people are subjected to in the context of their real, daily lives.
Though Project Apollo will not be able to do a complete read of our media lives (see Dave Smith’s editorial from last month), it is an attempt to refurbish an imperiled metric of the past for adequate service in media’s future.
Okay, so attempts are being made to salvage ratings and maintain their relevance as a metric for other media. What does this have to do with online advertising?
It has to do with online advertising because it means that ratings are here to stay, for the foreseeable future, as a means by which communication delivery is determined. If online media is to continue to keep its new-found place at the adult’s table, then it needs to learn how to hold its fork and put its napkin in its lap like the rest of the media around that table.
One of the distinctive features of online media is that planners and buyers are planning and buying against actual media consumption (impressions). There are many in online media who find this preferable to planning and buying against audience. The sense is that by planning and buying at the level of media occurrence (i.e. when a person is exposed to an advertisement) rather than dealing with who might be having that experience, we are closer to the “truth” of what our advertising will do. With online, we deal in a currency that utterly depends on direct measurement.
Advertisers need to be concerned not just by how much media is consumed, as a whole, but how many people are consuming it and how often. That is what ratings are: a marriage of reach and frequency. Advertisers want to spend the least amount of money in spreading their value proposition to maximize their income and profits. Reach is how many people the advertising speaks to, and frequency is how often people hear the advertising message; basically, how loud do you speak and how often do you say what you are saying.
Three reasons for ratings
I’d like to present you with three reasons why ratings matter and why being conscious of GRPs as they pertain to an online media plan is important.
- A comparative means of valuation. All the other major media are compared and assessed using ratings. Yes, reducing media weight to the level of impressions is done to compare one medium’s efficiency relative to another. However, that efficiency is only relative to the number of communications being made (impressions) and has no real bearing on the number of people actually receiving the communication. With ratings, we’d be able to quantify online media’s contribution to the advertising plan in the same way as the other media.
- Ratings express advertising in terms of persons. The good thing about online’s current version of media currency (the impression) is that it is ostensibly 100 percent verifiable. The downside is that it does not track to people for the purposes of reconciling advertising with the actions it attempts to solicit from its audience. Ultimately, it is not the impression that is called to act, it is an individual. Ratings online help to quantify the number of people consuming media, not just how much media is consumed.
- Because the client is asking for it. This is the most important answer of all to the question, “Why do GRPs matter?” Many clients ask to have their online media plan expressed in terms of ratings. They want to know what the relative communication delivery value is to other media because if money for one medium is coming from another it is important to know what is being gained in exchange for what is being given up. Some of you may respond that this is just bad thinking on the part of the client, and that the client needs to see online media as distinct from other media, unique in the impact it has on its audiences. But that argument underestimates the client and overestimates the online medium. It would also indicate that one is not sensitive to the client’s need to see their media in a larger context. Some clients want to have the online component of a media plan expressed in terms of ratings because that is the lingua franca of their marketing plan and it sets one medium among all others.
Even if a client understands the finer nuances of the online medium and the differences it has from the rest of media, often that client still has to explain the plan to a management that likely does not speak Internetese. Part of converting the natives is to know how to speak their language.
FYI: If you are asked by a client to express your online media plan in terms of GRPs, there are a few tools out there you should be aware of. NetRatings and comScore both have tools that you can use. Netrating’s WebRF is accessible through IMS, a media research interface tool. comScore has Campaign R/F; and finally Atlas has the GRP Forecaster.
The GRP might be an old metric, but that doesn’t entirely mean it is obsolete.