A brief journey into the amazing world of audience measurement

I know, audience measurement — riveting stuff. Other terms to send a bolt of excitement through your veins include “market research”, “analytics” and “audience surveys”. If this conjures images of bespectacled data scientists hunched over screens filled with graphs, spreadsheets and numbers — many numbers — then that would be fairly accurate. But if you are a publisher, advertiser, agency manager or anyone else in the broader marketing community you should force yourself to read this piece. Yes, even if you are in digital.

There are few things within the marketing and advertising business that are more central to the business we are engaged with than measurement is. Whilst the big award shows may get all the glitz and glam, and the awarded work may startle us, it is measurement around which the whole industry revolves. And ignoring the data scientists and the “media department” is a sure way for the rest of the community to foster an era where advertising is even more of a swearword than it already is.

The past year or two has seen a lot of drama and politics in the market research community. It’s also seen digital measurement coming of age and starting to extend its reach into areas formerly the domain of old media. These two winds of change have blown disarray and uncertainty into this ordinarily sedate and frumpy realm. Politics — like oil — mixes poorly with just about everything; and extremely poorly with statistics and statisticians.

(Before I go any further I should say that I am the Chair of the DMMA, the Digital Media and Marketing Association, and sit as an alternate Board member at SAARF — the South African Audience Research Foundation. I am not a numbers geek but I do have insight because of these roles.)

To put it mildly, SAARF has undergone some challenges in the past year. The broadcasters — operating under the vehicle of The National Association of Broadcasters — have resigned from SAARF, a circumstance that will eventuate at the end of 2014. Contributing the majority of funding as they do, this questions both the feasibility and legitimacy of SAARF.

In order to keep up with me you might need a short history lesson which will also serve as an object lesson in acronym usage.

In 1975 SAARF began operations with the fist ever AMPS Survey — in part the brainchild of Wally Langschmidt whose son Peter is now a prominent researcher and board member of SAARF. AMPS, the All Media and Products Survey, is what is says on the tin: a survey intended to present a view of the entire South African media consumer universe. In 2013, 25 000 individual households were surveyed, door-to-door, from mountain to sea, from township to mansion. The result is a data set that forms the basis for advertising sales in all media except digital.

Added onto SAARF over the years were RAMS, TAMS and OHMS (respectively Radio, Television and Outdoor Audience Measurement Surveys). Each employing different research methodologies, and costing many millions of rands to run, these offered media planners a deep-dive into the consumption of mass media. By using this data within an appropriate planning tool, it is possible to find the most appropriate audience for an advertising message.

SAARF has been, for most of its 38 year history, a joint industry committee (called a “JIC” in acronym land). It includes representatives from the above mentioned NAB; the PDMSA (Print Media South Africa, or Print & Digital Media South Africa as its recent, confusing rebrand would have it); MA (SA), the Marketing Association of South Africa, representing large advertisers; The ACA (Association for Communications and Advertising), the traditional ad agencies; the AMF, the Advertising Media Forum, the traditional media planners; OHMSA (Out of Home Media Association); Cinemark, the only company directly represented; and the DMMA.

This grouping of interest groups can be, as one can well imagine, something of a powder keg. While motivations are generally the same — to encourage spend on advertising, and to improve its efficacy by having it reach the right audience — competition for media spend is always just under the surface. In a time of such flux, where certain media (print, for example, and cinema) are in decline, and others (digital in particular) are on the rise, the word “frenemies” comes frequently to mind.

The unfortunate reality is that the broadcasters, after an audit of the TAMS study revealed some issues, decided to go their own way. The good news is that NAB and SAARF are hard at work agreeing a way forward that will ensure at least an industry-wide establishment survey even if the media-specific ones are run by each media association.

The DMMA, for its part, is busy tendering for a new measurement vendor (or to remain with our current provider, Effective Measure). Over the past 10 years the DMMA has established its official measurement numbers as the de facto measure of internet traffic and audience in the country.

Perhaps uniquely, the kind of digital measurement it does covers both traffic and demographic. It measures things like page impressions and unique visitors — the classic components of site traffic and analytics — by tagging member sites. It also runs a survey, which pops up from time-to-time on member sites, and has about 120 000 respondents. This gives it demographic information that can be paired with site traffic numbers.

As of last month, this data is now supplied to tools like Telmar so that media planners can finally present a single media plan that includes both traditional and digital media, like for like, at the press of a button.

However, great as this all may sound, there are some seminal moments here and significant shifts in the industry that those asleep will miss.

For starters, how SAARF reshapes itself and the establishment survey will set the industry up for, perhaps, the next 40 years. Input, thoughts, guidance and consideration is needed from as many people as possible, via industry bodies, to ensure the right decisions are made. These need to serve the interests of today’s players but also those who will be players in years to come.

Second, since everything is going digital (even billboards), figuring out how the digital industry plugs into this world is key. The spend that is moving away from print, cinema and — over time — broadcast, should be being captured by emerging media in the digital space. The fact is that, particularly in South Africa, this isn’t happening nearly fast enough. Partly because of the bewildering way in which the digital industry presents its product offering, and partly because we have both exaggerated and discounted our media inventory, media planners are wary of the digital offering.

Third, and pernicious and damaging to the local industry, is the hundreds of millions of rands flowing offshore to Facebook, Google and the like, whose clever, accessible and effective bidding systems provide a way to buy audiences with precision.

While it would be foolish to argue that South Africans shouldn’t advertise on these sites, which sit at the top of any traffic leaderboard in the country, it is equally foolish for us to sit by and let global corporations simply mop up advertising revenue from the country’s market. Many local publishers are simply resigned to this fact. We are, after all, talking about the global internet here. Who can fight Google and Facebook? But is this right? And have we really thought about how to shape our offerings to add more value than they can?

Make no mistake: the clients of the future will be fixated on measurement more than ever before. The expectation created by a medium that is infinitely measurable is infinite measurement. The tolerance for vague results or unsubstantiated arguments about “brand awareness” is already in steady decline in corporate boardrooms. The misguided obsession with Facebook likes is an obsession with needing to prove marketing success. We as an industry — digital and otherwise — need to take control of our measurement currencies and industry surveys, and we need to be in command of how we offer our audiences to our advertisers. If we don’t, someone else will.

** First Published on Memeburn 11 November 2013