SAN FRANCISCO – Marketers are testing new techniques to measure whether advertisers’ messages are getting across, and they are prepared to spend vast sums and deploy astonishingly complex technologies to do so.
At the Ad:Tech conference in San Francisco last week, advertising experts contemplated a variety of approaches, ranging from round-the-clock automated ad tracking to simply reducing the number of ads per show, that could make it easier for advertisers to reach an increasingly fragmented viewing public.
To measure the impact of ad campaigns, VNU, the parent company of television-audience measurement firm Nielsen Media Research, and Arbitron, the media research firm, are developing an experimental program called Project Apollo that takes the concept of viewer tracking to a level of unprecedented detail.
The project, which the companies hope to roll out on a trial basis next year, will require participants to carry a pager-sized device that records all advertising messages to which its wearer is exposed. Participants will also record everything they buy, so that advertisers can figure out exactly which messages made an impact.
“This fulfills a dream the industry has had for years: the ability to measure what a consumer is exposed to and their resulting behavior in the marketplace,” said Thom Mocarsky, vice president of communications at Arbitron.
The companies plan eventually to incorporate data from 30,000 U.S. households into Project Apollo, Mocarsky said. The planned trial will include between 4,000 and 6,000 households. In exchange for providing their data, participants will receive a combination of cash and products.
But the project involves more than just asking participants to share their viewing and shopping activities. Project Apollo’s creators intend to electronically record marketing messages to which participants are exposed by embedding an audio code into ads that can be automatically picked up by portable devices.
It won’t just be television ads, either. Embedded codes may be incorporated in ads across a range of media, including radio, TV and in-store loudspeaker systems. In future versions of the project, John Bosarge, senior vice president at VNU Advisory Services, envisions including exposure to ads in print media as well, albeit not through embedded codes.
The end goal, according to Bosarge, is to get a “holistic view of how consumers are consuming their media.” That way, advertisers can have a better idea how to divide their spending between radio, television and other types of media.
On its website, Project Apollo uses the example of a working mother to illustrate how the system might work. The woman is driving home from her job and hears a commercial for McDonald’s on the radio. Afterward, she takes her daughter out to eat at McDonald’s. Project Apollo would record both the woman’s exposure to the ad and her later patronage of the advertiser.
Such detailed information doesn’t come cheap. Bosarge estimated that the rollout of the full Project Apollo will cost in excess of $100 million.
Arbitron and VNU are willing to provide the upfront investment, Mocarsky said, but only if enough advertisers indicate that they are willing to pay for the service. So far, he said a number of national advertisers have expressed interest in the service, including consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.
The push for more sophisticated methods to measure the impact of advertising campaigns comes as TV programmers face increasing pressure to their traditional modus operandi from a host of emerging technologies. Networks must contend with both the rise of TiVos and video-on-demand services that let people watch shows at their convenience, and heightened competition from online media outlets, which provide detailed information about users’ response to ad campaigns.
“The whole ecosystem is going to change in the next five years in the way it hasn’t changed in the last 50,” said Pat Dunbar, co-founder of the DiMA group, a media consulting firm, addressing a panel at the Ad:Tech conference. Dunbar believes television programmers need to improve audience tracking and experiment with new advertising formats that may be better suited to viewers with TiVos.
In the case of video on demand, programmers may be best off skipping the standard commercial break altogether, said Chris Pizzurro, vice president of multimedia marketing for Turner Broadcasting. Pizzurro said his company has had some success attaching a single ad for each VOD clip it releases.
“One thing we found is that since the consumer has a fast forward in their hand, they will use it,” Pizzurro said. However, the company also found that people are unlikely to bother fast-forwarding through one ad.
Project Apollo could offer advertisers insights into which messages resonate with viewers, and which fall victim to fast-forward.
For the foreseeable future, project planners don’t intend to digitally record every marketing message to which a person is exposed, Bosarge said. They will focus instead on embedding codes in ads by national advertisers who are, not coincidentally, the biggest buyers of promotional time.
Before rolling out its ad-recording device, the Portable People Meter, on a national scale, Arbitron plans to test it out with residents of Houston. The company plans to reports the results of its Houston trial this summer.
Mocarsky expects advertisers will be particularly interested in learning which commercial spots resonate with the widest viewership, as advertisers are still figuring out how to reach a national audience in an environment of virtually limitless channel selection.
“The ability to reach a mass audience is becoming harder and harder,” he said. “That makes anyone who can command a mass audience immensely valuable.”
“Being able to go to the three networks and getting 95 percent of consumers like we did in the ’50s and ’60s – those days are gone,” said Bosarge. “You have to start thinking about various messages.”