By Florian Kahlert
At a recent research conference, a panelist (representing an agency that shall remain unnamed) was yet again proclaiming the death of panel data and advocating a move to cross-platform, census-level data for planning and buying.
I had to bite my tongue, as I often do in these cases. Actually, in theory, I agreed with him. If we had reliable cross-platform data for TV, radio, print, online and mobile for the same individuals, accurately linked and at levels that approach census-level (millions, not thousands) — and then could connect that data to the same person’s product ownership and consumer behavior — we would be in advertising Nirvana. (Or, Orwell’s 1984.)
The idea of “truly 360-degree measurement” is not new, and attempts to get closer to it are always appearing; but they bump up against hard, cold realities. Let’s talk about a few:
First, that same agency person who would be so delighted by the abilities of this system would likely be unwilling to pay for the services. To do what he envisioned would be prohibitively expensive.
Second, what sounds awesome as a conference sound bite (or written in a blog post, like this one) is technologically incredibly complex, massively big, and – unless you are the NSA, with virtually unlimited funds – extremely hard to do. To combine passive data for the same person reliably across multiple platforms at scale is something Richard Branson might consider beyond rocket science.
Just to provide a simple detail – managing a passive panel (not even census) requires constant oversight as people change devices, move to different states, and more. It also demands ongoing software development, as mobile companies change the way they do things; and it generates terabytes of data every day that need to be cleaned, processed, and made actionable by running them through ever-evolving taxonomies. And that is just for one platform; do this across digital and TV, and you are multiplying the complexities.
Third, we have not even talked about the definition of “census-level.” Does it mean all 200 million US adults? Is a sample of 20 million enough? In other words, do big numbers without actual sampling methodology truly “represent”? What if my 20 million represent a populous of mostly high-income people living in big metro areas? Is that “good enough”?
A path forward
Now, just being a nay-sayer is not really helpful. Let us look at some things we can actually do.
First, there are companies out there that have excellent program level TV data – Nielsen and Rentrak come to mind.
Second, other companies have awesome product ownership and print media consumption information (such as yours truly, GfK MRI); but this is mostly recall data, not passive.
Thirdly, there are companies like Tapad that do an excellent job of connecting different devices (mobile online), but they do not know much about the person’s TV viewing habits or OOH behavior.
The key to a way forward is to acknowledge that no one can afford to own and generate all the data anymore by themselves; we need to find ways to combine different data sets to come up with a more universal view. And the only way I see to do this that will not bump up against Orwellian levels of privacy intrusion is in anonymized matching, and modeling unmatched sets, and then calibrating them all against representative, carefully managed reference panels. And there again, you have the need for panels — the very opposite thing of census data.
Needless to say, we are constantly working on it. Living in the real world is no small task, it seems.