As PAMCo, the Publishers Audience Measurement Company, announces its replacement for the National Readership Survey, it is worth pausing to reflect on the key issues that all media audience measurement currencies have in maintaining their evolution to meet the increasingly intense commercial demands of its industry stakeholders.

Changing a currency is not easy. Countries will testify to this. You only need to consider the challenge of changing to decimal currency in the UK in 1971, or the more recent difficulties experienced by the Eurozone countries that adopted a single currency. Part of the problem is that a currency has political significance and so changing it can prove painful. It also takes time, and by time I mean possibly years, to make any adjustment.

PAMCo is just embarking on that change journey and is looking to publish its first set of results in 2017. BARB is looking towards a total video currency and RAJAR is keen, but understandably cautious, to integrate passive electronic measurement.

Below I list three major challenges facing all media as they strive to maintain relevance and credibility with their audience measurement currencies.

  • More haste, less speed

A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

Some Commercial Directors in media owner companies are losing patience with industry research. Profits are falling and the lack of real-time, cross-platform audience data leads to cries about the research being slow and useless, particularly in the battle against digital-only properties. Messengers are often shot or at least mauled.

The counter argument presented by researchers and technical consultants is that, given a clear brief, a solution can be designed to meet any set of commercial requirements – albeit at a price. But it is a solution that needs to be carefully tested and validated given the size of the advertising pot relying on the quality of the numbers. Would you put your family in a car that had not gone through any Euro NCAP safety tests? Questions still exist over the quality of a lot of online metrics despite the best endeavors of UK organisations such as ABC, UKOM, IAB, and, in the US, The Media Ratings Council.

It pays to have a clear and industry-agreed vision of what the metric should deliver to ensure it meets the market’s demands now and the future, and that there exists a realistic roadmap before any work commences. It also pays to have a simple definition of the reader, viewer and listener. With a blunt axe, it will take much longer than five minutes to chop down a tree.

  • Deliver both innovation and stability

The cri de coeur of media owners and agencies is to improve the measurement systems, but not to change the existing data. This is a not an unreasonable request given the money at risk. But I would argue that incremental change is every bit as important as innovation. If you lift the lid on all the UK media measurement contracts today, the engines look very different from those you would have found ten years ago, or even five years ago in some cases. For example, RAJAR is still administered using diaries, but by looking to offer participants a choice of paper, PC, smartphone and tablet, it promotes better response rates, participant engagement and data quality. In Australia, GfK successfully introduced a new radio currency without disrupting previous audience trends and enhanced it with an extra layer of radio listener insights through GfK Radio Insights.

It remains to be seen what happens to the UK readership data. It certainly appears that the measures put in place so far appear to strive for the optimum balance between innovation and stability.

  • Demand better, faster and cheaper

Read any industry contract tender specification and at the heart will be a requirement to deliver better, faster and cheaper data. It is the age-old trade-off and one that more often than not ends in compromise. As Rodney Harris, a UK media agency director in the 1980s, once said, “Media research is not designed to find out the truth; it is a treaty between interested parties.” There is a fear that “better” is being sacrificed for “faster” and “cheaper”. Either way, it needs to be the best that the money available can buy. The worst case scenario is that trying to deliver on all three leads to inertia and nobody spots the frog boiling in the bucket.

Whether currency change is forced through economic conditions or something else, the ultimate measure of success is acceptance and credibility across all parties. Collaboration is king. It is a matter of uniting competing stakeholders, bringing together different data suppliers or combining survey and server data, each with their own strengths, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That is where the success and credibility of audience measurement lies.

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