October 14th, 2008
Ad Firm Tracks Consumers Across Media
By Stephanie Kang
The Wall Street Journal
Special Software in Cellphones Measures Customers' Exposure to Marketing on TV, Radio and Movies
For years, marketers measured the reach of their ads one medium at a time. For TV, it generally was Nielsen; for radio, Arbitron; newspapers and magazines report circulation figures; while the Internet shows hits and page views and other traffic data.
But there haven’t been many ways to measure an ad campaign across all of these media at once.
A small media research company called Integrated Media Measurement is trying to bridge that research gap with a new technology that measures consumers’ exposure to the audio in ads on television, radio, computers, mobile phones, DVDs and inside a movie theatre—using a consumer’s cellphone.
The Internet’s ability to produce evidence on the effectiveness of ads—such as how many people viewed an ad and whether or not they clicked on it—has led to something of an industry obsession with new forms of measurement. The financial crisis promises to make marketers even more reluctant to risk money on ads, especially if they can’t keep score on how effective the spots are. Meanwhile, media fragmentation continues, as big-tent events like the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl are consumed in more and different ways.
“People don’t know how to measure the multimedia world we live in, so any piece of the puzzle is helpful,” says Brad Bortner, principal analyst at Forrester Research.
IMMI embeds its software into the cellphones of the company’s 4,900 panelists. The software picks up audio from an ad or a TV show and converts it into its own digital code that is then uploaded into an IMMI database, which includes codes for media content such as TV shows, commercials, movies and songs.
IMMI’s database then figures out what the cellphone was exposed to by matching the code. Cellphone conversations and background noise are filtered out by the software, IMMI says, since there is no “match” in the IMMI database.
To get a handle on the effectiveness of a given ad, IMMI’s data can show, for example, when a panel member is exposed to a movie trailer on TV and whether that same consumer later goes to see the movie. Similarly, IMMI data can show if a panelist watching a promo for a TV program will later watch the show, either on TV or online. IMMI thinks it can expand that idea from films and TV shows to consumer products like shampoo or toothpaste. It is testing its technology with a national grocery store chain.
“We follow the same person from end to end,” says Tom Zito, IMMI’s chief executive.
IMMI isn’t the first company to attempt this kind of measurement, but past efforts were stymied by the costs of creating a large-scale panel. IMMI’s use of cellphones means that consumers don’t have to labor over diaries or push buttons, says Mr. Zito, who worked for years as a journalist and rock critic before launching a number of Silicon Valley start-ups since the mid-1980s.
IMMI is still a tiny company, especially compared with competitors like Nielsen Media Research. The company’s 4,900-person panel has teenagers and adults in just six major markets—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston and Denver. IMMI panelists are paid $50 a month or receive free phone and data service in exchange for making the cellphone their primary phone, and carrying it with them at all times.
But the San Mateo, Calif.-company has managed to attract the attention of movie studios and broadcast networks like General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal and Walt Disney Co.’s ABC. NBC has used IMMI data to track how people watch shows like “Heroes” or big sporting events like the Beijing Olympic Games.
While the technology isn’t perfect, IMMI is helping NBC answer questions about how viewers watch its programming, says Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC. “I’m convinced the handset will be the way we will measure media going forward,” he says.
Still, IMMI is unlikely to change the way marketers develop ad campaigns. Mark Loughney, vice president of sales and strategy research at ABC, says that IMMI’s panel is still too small to make long term decisions. “For now, it’s a supplement, not a replacement to what we use,” he says.
IMMI also doesn’t measure outdoor or print ads, or Internet ads that don’t use audio.
But the company is already getting the attention of big competitors like Nielsen, which teamed up with IMMI to sell a service that tracks ad exposure in places like bars, health clubs, hotels and the office. Walt Disney’s ESPN and Zenith Media have already signed up for the service.