Tracking Moves Offline

I witnessed one of the most exciting technologies I’ve seen in years, at an Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) committee meeting.

The ARF is not a place you’d normally expect to see a new killer app. The organization’s mission is to improve marketing and media research. It often focuses on very important (but not always scintillating) issues of media measurement, such as the definition of an ad impression, reach/frequency metrics, and audience ratings.

You may think these issues are for the pocket-protector set. They mean billions of dollars to media companies and advertisers. Take radio and television ratings. If techniques for measuring how many people watch or listen to certain shows change, ratings for the stations carrying those broadcasts inevitably change, too. Lower ratings translate to less money stations can charge advertisers. So any proposed changes in ratings measurement spark heated debate. Big money’s on the line.

Problem is, some audience measurement methods are antiquated. No research is perfect, but systems for measuring radio and TV audiences haven’t improved much over the past few decades. Audiences are measured by small, representative panels. TV panels use set-top boxes. Radio panelists are asked to record listening habits in a diary.

There’s no problem with sample-based measurement. Researchers use highly refined methods to create a small sample of individuals whose behaviors and attitudes represent everyone. The problem is understanding the media habits of this sample: to accurately determine what they watch and listen to, when, and for how long.

Here’s the part about the scintillating new technology. At the ARF meeting, Germany’s largest market research company, GfK, presented a new technology, dubbed Radiocontrol, for measuring what TV and radio shows a person watched or listened to. It’s… a wristwatch!

Yes, a wristwatch. Several thousand panel members are given watches to wear for two weeks. The watch takes a four-second “fingerprint” of ambient sound every minute. At the end of two weeks, the watch is returned and the sound fingerprint is matched against a database of radio and TV programming to determine exactly what a person watched or listened to. The sample is then projected out to a national audience.

The watch is a highly sophisticated instrument, containing a motion detector and a thermostat to determine if it is worn at any given moment. It’s sleek and stylish but automatically stops telling the time after two weeks, which prompts the wearer to return it to the research company.

If you aren’t taken by the elegance of the technology, as I am, you should at least consider its implications. The ability to accurately track people’s real-world behaviors is of tremendous interest to marketers. When this type of technology is married with attitudes and purchase behavior, marketers will have a direct link between what people think and buy and the advertising they’re exposed to. It promises to create enormous advertising efficiencies.

Sound familiar? Online advertisers have long been able to track behavior and ad exposure, then link them up to attitudinal data. All these online measures will soon be combined with offline data. Radiocontrol is just one example of how Internet marketing properties are starting to transform offline media and marketing.

Online advertising seems moribund to some, with pop-unders, skyscrapers, and cookie-cutter banners. We argue over the most fundamental measurement criteria. But enormous changes are taking place in the marketing landscape.

Keep an eye on revolutions in traditional media.

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