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IQ News: Analysis - Measurement's Tangled Web

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Will Nielsen/NetRatings re-ignite the Net ratings war?
During the un-civil war between Web audience measurement companies, which began in 1996, archrivals Media Metrix, New York, and RelevantKnowledge, Atlanta, waged a sometimes nasty war of words against one another. Both camps believed their own methodology superior. So who was right? Well, they both were. At least that's what their press releases now say.
That's because in October 1998, Media Metrix and RelevantKnowledge did a complete about face, merging and marrying their supposedly incompatible methodologies to form Media Metrix: The Power of Relevant Knowledge. The merger resulted in a respite in online media's own Cold War.
But the dƒtente may be short-lived. Just two weeks after the announcement of the merger between Media Metrix and RelevantKnowledge, TV ratings powerhouse Nielsen Media Research and Milpitas, Calif.-based upstart NetRatings formed an alliance that resulted in the creation of the Nielsen/NetRatings service. Last week, the new rival officially launched, and-- depressingly--may have set the stage for another Web ratings war.
"We're bringing a new level of information to the Internet," claims Tim Meadows, vice president of marketing at NetRatings. He says the primary difference between Nielsen/NetRatings and Media Metrix, and the new service's key selling point, lies in the recruitment process for its panel and the higher quality of data derived from the superior sample.
If those arguments have the familiar ring of dƒjˆ vu, it's with good reason. Media Metrix and RelevantKnowledge had once battled, too, over the alleged superiority of each other's samples. Industry observers can now only hope the hype doesn't turn into another energy-depleting rivalry.
"If Manish Bhatia [vice president of interactive services at Nielsen] spent 30 more seconds talking about random digit dial vs. enumeration [sample acquiring], yadda yadda yadda, I was going to hang up on him," says Jim Nail, a perhaps world-weary senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research who nonetheless likes the product.
No wonder that, when asked about the new Web measurement firm on the block, Media Metrix president and chief operating officer Mary Ann Packo adopts a been-there, done-that attitude. While she concedes, "We, of course, take Nielsen very seriously," she pledges, this time, not to get involved in the same time-consuming tug-of-war with NetRatings that once distracted both Media Metrix and RelevantKnowledge from tracking the online audience.
"We've been in this for over 36 months and with our sample being 40,000, it's significantly larger than Nielsen/NetRatings' and a large sample is really critical here," says Packo. (NetRatings has a panel of 9,000 people and, for now, only tracks home Internet usage.)
NetRatings' Meadows counters that it's quality, not quantity, that is paramount. "If you're talking about providing valuable information to advertisers, then I would argue that the top 100 Web sites are what counts," he says.
But Packo believes the God of Web measurement is in the details. "The Web is very granular," she says. "There is so much data and there are a lot of small sites.
It's really important to report on them."
Nail, for one, believes that NetRatings' attempts to hype itself may be unnecessary. The NetRatings product, says Nail, who was originally a skeptic, is a good one and poses a real threat to Media Metrix's current reign.
"Just get the product to the marketing guys," Nail says, "show them that they can see all the banners and all the sites that their competitors are running on. Then tell them, by the way, we have all the methodology stuff buttoned up so you know that this is accurate data. And then the marketing guys are going to say, 'I gotta have this.'"
The irony of the competition is that if the post-merger experience of Media Metrix and RelevantKnowledge is any guide, all the bluster may be much ado about nothing. For instance, Packo now says that much publicized inconsistencies in the data between the merged firms turned out to have been merely superficial, having to do with different definitions of the total Web audience universe. Once the numbers were compared on an apples-to-apples basis, they were practically identical.
"We thought there would be some big smoking gun," Packo says. "But there wasn't."
Still, there are differences to be made between the post-merger Media Metrix and NetRatings. Media Metrix now combines the real-time data feedback of RelevantKnowledge with the breadth of Media Metrix's process, which tracks everything members of its panel do on a computer, including usage of proprietary services such as America Online, which RelevantKnowledge couldn't track. And to many, Media Metrix's ability to track the business market is crucial since so much Web-surfing is done in offices.
NetRatings enters the market with a sexy product that features a powerful, proprietary BannerTrack system, which tracks top advertisers and banner ads on the Web, extremely valuable competitive information. (Media Metrix claims they, too, can track banner ads on a customized, per-client basis.)
And while Net-Ratings provides a syndicated weekly report, Media Metrix, which has reported on a monthly basis, recently launched its own weekly product.
Both promote their real-time tracking, but NetRatings can boast of being "uniquely positioned" to deliver data on the future converged audience of Net and TV users through its relationship to Nielsen Media Research.
For now, most clients are having it both ways. NetRatings' client roster includes Yahoo!, OgilvyOne and Amazon.com, all of which also subscribe to Media Metrix.
But NetRatings' pre-eminent point-of-difference--its relationship to Nielsen--may also be its biggest perceptual drawback. Nielsen has been under increasing fire from the TV networks, which believe the company misrepresents actual TV viewing.
"Everyone wants to be a maverick and likes to feel like they're re-inventing the wheel," observes Steven Marrs, managing partner and COO of DDB Digital, New York, "but Nielsen has a lot of baggage to overcome."
Meadows downplays such gripes. "Usually, if you peel the onion on those complaints, it's in the face of declining ratings. Networks get bent out of shape if their ratings go down and they blame the messenger."
In the end, of course, it will all come down to solid stats and numbers, regardless of the source. According to Nail, "Ad buyers will say, 'Just give me some numbers because I gotta make some decisions and get out into the marketplace.'"
Can't we all just get along?
--with Adrienne Mand