Audience measurement: the quest for precision

For decades, Nielsen has been the industry leader in audience measurement, providing insights to marketers and advertisers in the US. However, the company’s loss of industry accreditation in September 2021 triggered a surge in the adoption of alternatives. As the media landscape evolves and consumption increasingly shifts to digital, the search for accurate, comprehensive measurement has become far more complex. In response, a joint industry committee was established to proliferate emerging alternatives. Nielsen is striving to regain footing with advancements like Nielsen ONE, but the question remains: will it be enough to meet the growing demand for precision for 2023 and beyond?

Longstanding incumbent Nielsen loses MRC accreditation

Following issues during the pandemic which included significantly undercounting viewers, the media industry’s measurement watchdog the Media Rating Council (MRC) pulled Nielsen’s accreditation of national and local panel-based ratings. This was the first time since the 1960s that Nielsen had been without accreditation, and was therefore a significant blow to an industry that had long been building towards a crisis such as this. Since then, MRC has engaged independent auditors to review Nielsen’s progress and has highlighted compliance with industry standards. In April 2023, Nielsen regained accreditation. Nielsen’s CEO of Audience Measurement Karthik Rao has claimed the process has ‘made them stronger’, as the company have ‘evolved panel strategy and quality measures’ to ensure a ‘consistent and reliable’ experience for users.

Nevertheless, such uncertainty within the measurement industry, driven by both measurement issues and shifting consumer trends during the pandemic, tempted buyers and sellers of ads to seek alternatives. Despite the fact that Nielsen has introduced metrics for streaming, it is now just one of many players in the market.

Measurement alternatives build steam following industry shake-up

According to AdWeek, VideoAmp and iSpot have emerged as top contenders. VideoAmp is lauded as the most ‘solution-oriented’, with data and tech connectivity highlighted as a particular strength. VideoAmp and iSpot have also teamed with audience viewership company TVision, allowing the inclusion of demographic-specific transactions. Whilst there were a number of alternatives with varied legitimacy, major networks are now looking to further establish a shortlist. Fox, NBCU, Paramount, TelevisaUnivision and DiscWarner have formed a joint-industry committee with OpenAP and the Video Advertising Bureau, to ‘establish the suitability of emerging cross-platform measurement solutions in advance of the 2024 upfront’, the committee claims. This poses a genuine threat to Nielsen as cross-platform alternatives look to obtain a seal of approval from the industry’s major players.

Nielsen strives to regain its footing

Nielsen has responded with major improvements, claiming they have corrected the issues that led to accreditation loss. George Ivie, CEO of MRC says ‘there is still more work to be done both in the near and long term to ensure Nielsen’s services continue to meet our standards and the requirements of the industry’. There is still a long way to go, and that includes reinstating Nielsen’s local-market measurement tool, which was also suspended in 2021 but not later renewed.

However, Nielsen ONE is a clear indication the company is looking to remain as the industry’s dominant platform, even as consumption increasingly shifts to digital. It is a cross-media platform designed to ‘provide a consistent, comparable and deduplicated view across linear TV, connected TV, desktop and mobile’, Nielsen claims. It utilizes impact data for TV measurement, allowing for greater granularity and comparability across TV and digital platforms. This is crucial for an evolving media landscape wherein digital streaming consumption is exponentially closing the gap on linear TV; the need to plan and track performance across media is greater than ever. Nielsen released Nielsen ONE Ads in January 2023, then Nielsen ONE Content Alpha in April; more enhancements to the platform are due to be released in late 2024. According to Nielsen’s SVP of Product Management Kim Gilberti, Nielsen ONE intends to ‘associate TV viewing with people, not just devices’.

Nielsen announced this week the launch of its media data room (MDR). This deal with cloud-based data-management platform Snowflake will enable clients to access a ‘census of first-party data’ that can be matched to Nielsen’s media audience attributes. Nielsen has framed it as a step towards a true clean room, which would allow data to ‘flow both into and out of the Nielsen ecosystem’.

What can we expect moving forwards?

According to eMarketer, ad spend on internet-connected TV sets in the US is expected to increase to $13.4bn in 2023 (up 49% from 2022), and to $25bn by 2024 (a further 87% increase). Furthermore, the proliferation of alternatives through a joint industry committee indicates the growing importance of Nielsen’s credibility. Nevertheless, competition can only benefit the industry, wherein emphasis is placed on improvements required. This was seconded by Nielsen’s Chief Executive David Kenny, who said ‘Competition is a good thing. It always makes us stronger. This is a transition phase for the whole industry. I do believe we need to compete for it and invest in it’.

It is widely agreed that Nielsen maintains a dominant position, thanks largely to its tenure and sheer volume. It has been collecting panel data for decades; such an advantage cannot diminish overnight. Still, there is growing uncertainty around Nielsen ONE based on the company’s recent performance, and some have been left somewhat underwhelmed by its introduction.

How should this be approached by marketers?

This is an exciting time for marketers, but needs to be approached with a degree of caution. The combination of measurement industry competitiveness and the need for cross-media planning means it is essential to extract the most accurate data, whilst utilizing it effectively. This may stem from the ability to manage multiple services to gain a comprehensive view of consumption as streaming services become increasingly disruptive. Or this may have been the wake-up call Nielsen finally needed so that they can work towards providing the industry with a single solution. Nevertheless, a willingness to embrace change and approach alternatives with an open mind will be pivotal. Ultimately, advertisers want to feel confident that their agency partners, media vendors and internal teams are extracting the maximum value from every ad dollar, and a short-term solution is unlikely to be the final answer.

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