Project Apollo: Ready for Lift Off?

The face of marketing has changed significantly in the last few years. Though most of the wild predictions of the ’90s have yet to materialize (and may never achieve the extremes once assumed to be foregone conclusions), things are decidedly different. Consumers have more control than ever. Media fragmentation is rampant. People consume multiple media simultaneously, fast-forward through ads, block pop-ups and other online ads, and delete cookies. All of this makes tracking ad exposure more difficult.

We’ve gotten pretty good at tracking online, despite recent uproar over cookies. Continued media convergence creates more digital channels. And as more media become digital, the ability to track those different channels will improve.

VNU, the parent of Arbitron and Nielsen, seems tired of waiting for digital convergence. It’s preparing to launch Project Apollo, a pilot program that aims to better track behavior and media consumption across channels, starting with (and heavily focused on) analog.

The system uses the Portable People Meter (PPM), a device similar to a pager, which each panel member must carry at all times. It records the ad messages the wearer is exposed to through a code embedded in the audio track. The pilot program will be made up of 4,000-6,000 U.S. households. It focuses on TV. If it works, it can easily be expanded to radio and conceivably, to any audio-based channel. The idea could even be migrated to print. The developers envision the panel growing to 30,000 U.S. households.

Sounds great, eh? It’s certainly talked about, and some big advertisers are throwing their weight behind it. Yet the project seems to be missing key components.

“Another way to think about Project Apollo is that it would aggregate a ‘day in the life’ of thousands of consumers,” says Consumer Insight Magazine, an ACNielsen publication. If the device only tracks audio-based ad exposures (by picking up an inaudible broadcast code), what about print, outdoor, earphone-based audio (podcasting, radio, etc.), mobile phones, PDAs, and, perhaps most important, online?

Any solution that neglects these channels, particularly online, is incomplete and likely not worth the investment for what can only be only incremental gains in understanding media consumption and corresponding behavior. The Internet is an extremely powerful force in the decision-making cycle for many consumer products. For some goods and services, particularly high-consideration categories such as automotive and real estate, the Internet has proven to be the single most important medium.

The Apollo team seems to be considering those channels but inspires no confidence that a solution is coming soon. Vehicles such as TV are going to feel more like the Web (via VOD (define), iTV, etc.) in terms of data types required and skill sets needed to analyze the information.

Methodologies based on PPMs don’t appear well suited to measuring with great detail how a user interacts with a Web site (or an interactive ad or, by extension, any interactive marketing channel). Where do the consumer’s eyes go? Where do they click? Do they scroll to see content below the fold? How many pages do they consume during a visit? Does that change with more frequent visits? Do they interact with rich media ads? Which expandable panel was most popular? Which panel did consumers spend the most time with, and which was most effective at getting them to take the desired action?

This is the kind of incredibly powerful data key to making important marketing decisions in a world where the consumer’s in control. Like it or not, that world (which most marketers appear to dread) is quickly coming. We can’t ignore the rich data it affords, not even in the short term.

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