Demographics or Data: Which One Will Dominate Future Ratings Measurement?

Nielsen-hosted panel looks ahead to metrics in 2025

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Nielsen is rolling out its total audience measurement tool by next March, and the company is already looking ahead to how it—and the industry—will measure viewing habits into the next decade.

Speaking at a New York Advertising Week panel about ratings measurement in 2025, Megan Clarken, Nielsen's president of product leadership, talked about the company's launch of digital content ratings on Friday, a story Adweek broke this morning. "It's very exciting for us," Clarken said. "It was only dreamed about eight years ago, and here it is."

Over the next eight or so years, Nielsen is looking to attribute devices to people and provide better targeting capabilities. The company is rolling out a new meter across its various panels. (Earlier this month, it said it will finally phase out paper TV ratings diaries, which are still used in 140 local markets, "in early 2018.") The new nanometers are twice the size of a mobile phone, and one-fourth the size of the current meters, said Clarken. The company is also working on revamping the people meters and is testing having its panelists wear Fitbit-like devices "to complement and eventually replace the device they use today."

The company will be keeping an eye on the behavior of millennials and whether their viewing habits change as they get older. Clarken said millennials will be more likely to watch more live TV as they get older, follow trends, watch more VOD than their 35-49 counterparts and use more connected TV devices. They'll play less video games but will participate in more augmented reality like Pokemon Go.

During her talk, Clarken discussed the future of brand advertising and targeted, or addressable, advertising, and said Nielsen believes age and gender demographics will continue to be the core base for both. Age and gender is the only demographic break with "a known universe," said Clarken. "We know the size of it, so we can report on market share."

However, she said, representative panels (i.e., exactly what Nielsen does) will be necessary to take the biases out of "big data" like Facebook, which doesn't provide info for users under 13 or account for shared devices. "Because of fragmentation and this proliferation of channels and platforms, we will always need big data to come in and help with the measurement, but it will always need to be weighted and balanced by a representative sample," Clarken said.

But some of the panelists who spoke after Clarken's presentation disagreed. "It scares me to think about the year 2025, and we're still transacting TV using age/sex demographics," said Howard Shimmel, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting. "If we do this, we're going to leave lots of ROI for [advertisers] untapped because we're not doing things like targeting." Instead, he said, foundational metrics should take a backseat to driving the most ROI.

Lyle Schwartz, managing partner for GroupM, said that's already how he and his clients operate. "We don't plan on demographics," he said, noting that he focuses on underlying data like ROI, which GroupM's research team generates in-house. "That's the information I have to negotiate off of," said Schwartz, adding that "if the industry can't agree on metrics, fine—we will do it ourselves."

Schwartz argued that "you can't lose the dynamic of each medium," even with apples-to-apples metrics because radio, TV and magazines each bring something different and valuable to the type for clients. "We work with our clients to make sure that we're putting their money in the right place at the right time, with the right message, which ironically was something written in 1958," he said. "The only thing different now is that we have much more opportunities to do it."

The panelists also discussed ways to drive down the ad-blocking number for video, which some suggested is driven by overtargeted and forced video streams.

"We literally don't serve video content to people that have a video ad blocker on. It's that simple. We'll take that hit," said Marc DeBevoise, president and COO, CBS Interactive. "We're putting content out there that we believe is good enough that you won't want to block the ad that you'll want the content enough."

David Levy, who earlier today was named evp of nonlinear revenue for Fox Networks Group, said that while it's important to measure attention, that can't be a single metric "or we go to the lowest common denominator." He later added, "If we actually believe that we can make more for delivering better attention, we will, and that's where we need to get to to reduce that ad-blocking number"

Strangely, even though the ratings measurement panel included a Facebook exec (Brad Smallwood, vp of measurement science), no mention was made of last week's news that for two years, Facebook had given ad agencies a viewing metric that was inflated by as much as 80 percent. On Monday, however, Facebook's vp of global marketing solutions, Carolyn Everson, told an Advertising Week audience that the company regretted its actions, and that "we will need to do better."

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.