The Fractured Media Landscape

As a trend watcher, I really perk up when two major media outlets report the same thing at the same time, especially when it’s an obscure topic, such as media measurement. Measurement is our bread and butter. Of course, the rest of the world doesn’t usually give a hoot about the intricacies of our business.

So I was intrigued recently when both NPR and The New York Times Magazine became interested in the difficulties of measuring TV, the effect of alternative online media (e.g., blogs), and how changes in the media industry will affect advertising. These aren’t topics that typically engage the public at large. What’s going on here?

TV’s supremacy is ending. And people are starting to notice. TV ratings are down, Internet usage is up. New cable channels seem to come online every day, VOD (define) is becoming a major force, and PVRs (define) are gaining popular acceptance. “Podcast” (define) has practically become a household word, and new forms of media such as vlogs and PSPcasts are getting noticed. And most of those are passive media, much in the old broadcast model only delivered differently. Never mind the interesting stuff, such as ads inserted into video games, mobile device advertising, and ads in non-traditional locations, such as movie theaters and some of the more innovative outdoor venues.

NPR’s Bob Garfield believes the transition between old and new media will be painful and chaotic. Even if you don’t agree, the changing media landscape should make you nervous if you deliver commercial messages to targeted audiences. We’re rapidly approaching the tipping point. We won’t be able to ignore the chaos much longer. It will only get tougher to reach the customers your clients want, especially if your clients demand accurate measurement.

“But wait!” you may be saying. “What about the Portable People Meter (PPM)? What about cable set-top box measurement? What about the numbers I’m getting from my ad server?”

Though many major third-party ad servers have made major strides in the past few years, defining even the most basic metric, the impression, is still problematic. And though the PPM (and similar automated measurement technologies) may be more accurate than diaries or old-style measurement devices, and cable boxes can accurately measure viewing habits, none are panaceas. Newfangled audience measurement technologies such as PPMs only work when people wear them, and they rely on sampling. Cable boxes only measure what the device is doing, not the people who are (or aren’t) watching. If a TiVo changes the channel, the cable box can’t know it. Are there 2 people in the room, or 50? The box doesn’t know.

What people watch (or listen to or read) isn’t necessarily on TV (or the radio, or in print, or even on “commercial” Web sites) anymore. The media landscape is fracturing like a plate glass window hit with a flying trashcan. Trying to figure out how many pieces there are is next to impossible.

We all know people use the Internet more and watch TV less. Major online media properties get the lion’s share of online traffic, but new media forms, such as blogs, podcasts, and vblogs, are gnawing away at even the big sites. At last count, there were 9 million blogs online, 5 million of which are “active.” There are over 5,000 podcasts to choose from and a currently uncountable number of vblogs and “passed around” video clips.

Those last two are problematic for advertisers because they can be listened to or viewed offline (in MP3 and video players). Exposure is impossible to measure. You might know when a file is downloaded, but you’ll never know how often it’s listened to or who the file was passed to.

That’s not an inconsequential part of the equation. As desktop media become easier (and cheaper) to produce and more people get broadband (we’re already past the 50 percent mark in the U.S.), more people will create content that even more people will pay attention to. Sure, most of it will be garbage. But it’s out there. And when people read, watch, or listen to it to determine it’s garbage, they’re not watching your commercials or seeing your ads.

What to do? That’s the multibillion-dollar question. I don’t have the answer. Part of the solution is to change our attitude and look at new ways of doing things. We need new tools capable of aggregating audience data across media. We must be faster, more flexible, and able to follow audiences as they surf across the datasphere. We must think more expansively and consider the user, not the device she uses. We must take risks to stay on top of the curve.

It’ll be painful, and we’ll make a lot of mistakes. Advertisers will resist, and there’s a lot to learn. When dealing with chaos, there’s no alternative.

Related reading

Digital marketing strategy for business
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