Black Box vs. Tool Box Analytics in Digital Media

Media converges with digital more and more each day.

Even a year ago, would anyone have predicted that Amazon would win a Golden Globe for a show starring Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development fame? Or that today you can watch network television without a cable subscription (or even an antenna)? Given these new twists, can we begin to consider how this affects digital analytics as compared with the “ratings” that once drove all media sales?

Today, where media companies sell to advertisers, they continue to offer up the proverbial eyeballs even if no one wants to call it that anymore. How many viewers? How many pre-rolls of the digital video? How many tweets, shares, replays, aborted sessions, repeated sessions? In an ad-sales environment, the data can drive the transfer of lots of real dollars. And typically, media folks just haven’t as reliable a data model today as they once had; consequently making it that much more difficult to help their customers (brands) make decisions about what to buy. And that’s despite the fact they can offer far better targeting and far more depth into audience analytics than was ever before possible.

Why is there even a debate about what’s important in digital media? Aren’t the old-fashioned ratings systems working the way they used to?

Turns out they’re not. And it seems like it’s more about optics than data.

For instance, when television was unchallenged by the Internet as a media outlet, there was just one accepted metric, and that was the Nielsen rating. It was more or less gospel. If you had bad ratings, you had bad advertising sales rates and if you couldn’t sell a 30-second spot for your show at an acceptable rate, then your show got canceled.

The reason the ratings model was accepted was not necessarily because Nielsen had come up with a fault-free method of audience measurement. As likely it was because Nielsen didn’t share a great deal about exactly how they arrived at those ratings numbers. Or at least they owned the methodology and were willing to stand behind it. And media folks had no way of questioning it because they had nothing else to compare it to. Nielsen said: “here are the numbers,” not “here are some methodologies we developed to measure audiences.” I call that a black box. It was easy and it worked.

Then came the Internet and, heaven help us, you could look in your browser at the code on a live, published page yourself; almost as if you might have won a spot backstage at the sitcom set and watch them writing the script just before show time. And if you were the “publisher” and wanted to know about who was looking at the page, when, and for how long, you had no choice but to do the counting yourself. Whatever you found out you did not share; and you also could not reasonably compare. For where one sitcom versus another was pretty close to apples/apples, now it became apples/starship. Worse, no one could agree on what an apple was. Or if a starship could be made of apples.

With visibility into methodology came the right to question everything, including the methodology. It’s inherent to the Internet paradigm that no one company measures and presents results. Everyone is their own little Nielsen and they know every flaw in the model and have a thousand reasons not to believe the numbers. It isn’t that it’s less reliable than Nielsen, it’s just that it looks that way.

Somehow, media needs to get back to a model such as Nielsen had. But that might require a black box again, and that seems about as likely as a starship made out of apples.

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