Despite Audience Expansion, Skepticism of Nielsen Lingers

Nielsen has expanded its online audience measurement panel and added to it members of its TV/Web convergence panel in the hopes of better assessing online audiences and site traffic. While the firm’s broader U.S. panel — now eight times larger — could help track usage of often hidden long-tail sites, some remain skeptical of the panel-centric approach taken by Nielsen.

Nielsen’s U.S.-based online panel now consists of 230,000 households. Also, it now includes “several thousand” members of its TV/Internet convergence panel, according to Dave Osborn, SVP of Product Leadership at Nielsen. The firm considers this to be a step towards improved cross-media usage measurement.

Though Nielsen claims its magnified panel is now the largest covering U.S. users, rival comScore says its U.S. panel has 1 million members. ComScore’s Media Metrix U.S. sample, a subset of its total U.S. panel, includes around 300,000 users. Media Metrix serves media planners and buyers.

The Nielsen panel expansion “provides something that was missing,” said Jeremiah McMillan, president of multimedia entertainment production firm Soda Entertainment. The firm advises clients on which distribution platforms achieve high ROI. Yet, he added, “As one of the largest and oldest companies involved in metrics, Nielsen has to work harder to offer the widest and most detailed online metrics that they can put together.”

Nielsen has been increasing the size of its panels based in markets across the globe since 2006, including Japan, France, Germany, China, Brazil, and the U.K.; the company considers the U.S. growth to be “part of a global march that is concluding now,” said Osborn. An Australian panel expansion is planned in the near future.

The company contends that by adding some of its cross-media panelists in the expanded user base, it will pick up on Web usage by demographic groups such as Hispanics and teenagers that may have been overlooked in the past. For example, suggested Osborn, “being able to accurately represent activity on PCs other than what we previously deem as primary should have a really positive impact on [measuring] activities of younger users.”

“If I can get a clearer picture of specific demographics like teens, Latinos, and possibly in the future international visitors, then I would be in a better position in terms of more efficient targeting, which in most cases provides higher ROI,” said McMillan.

Still, it remains to be seen whether enlarging the panel will assuage concerns of site publishers and media buyers regarding the validity of Nielsen’s data. Some argue a panel-based methodology is flawed to begin with.

“An increased number of panelists is always good for the marketplace,” said David Smith, CEO of integrated media agency Mediasmith. However, he continued, “I continue to believe the solution of direct measurement — one using a census such as Quantcast uses rather than a sample — is going to be the only way long-term to measure the great number of sites we need to measure in order to do online advertising.”

Quantcast measures online audiences through data derived directly from Web sites. The company claims to measure over 10 million sites directly by placing its tracking cookie on the sites. “Both comScore and Nielsen should use a census,” argued Smith. Others believe comScore’s and Nielsen’s methods miss at-work visitors.

Last month, comScore said it will complement its panel with census, or site-side data. The firm launched Media Metrix 360, which will compile data gleaned both from its panel of Web users and data coming directly from Web sites, in order to provide a more holistic view of online audiences. Nielsen also offers a methodology combining panel- and census-based data, but only for its online video measurement service.

“The market has a lot of choices for audience measurement and that’s always a good,” said Osborn, stating Nielsen’s decision to boost its panel numbers is “certainly not in response to competitive activity.”

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