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The So, So, Sophists
By Erwin Ephron

The bold headline caught my eye: "Why Ratings No Longer Matter." Since that is the research equivalent of "God is dead," I read on, trembling.

Not Since Aristotle has so much Greek been spoken

The bold headline caught my eye: "Why Ratings No Longer Matter." Since that is the research equivalent of "God is dead," I read on, trembling.  Here is my paraphrase of that handwriting on the wall.

Never again will it be enough for media to say they can deliver eyeballs and be paid for it.  Never again will advertisers succeed by targeting women 18-34.  Gross audience measures are useless and outdated. Throw them in the fire and focus on the consumer, or risk being destroyed.

To a Greek scholar like me, the rhetoric (Greek for the art of persuasion through words) sounded familiar.

One Who Does Wisdom

In fifth century Athens a small band of philosophers controlled the public dialogue. They were called Sophists, Greek for "One Who Does Wisdom."  Just as some researchers I know claim to be "One Who Does Truth."

According to Aristotle, Sophists were a mixed bag. They used clever words not facts or logic to persuade the people -- and they often prospered by advancing the lesser good.

Today's Sophists argue that between media fragmentation and newly empowered consumers, the old model is broken. Its survey measurements are relics of the past and useless in the present.

Now that's language speaking, not reality, fact or logic.

Yes, sample-based survey research has problems. Today's media come in smaller pieces which increases sampling error.  People don't like answering questions which reduces cooperation.  And no one pays as much attention to advertising as they once did. But we should rethink how to use survey research before we torch it.  Smart researchers are already developing ratings for this new fragmented, uncooperative, inattentive world.

A New Research Model

TV is already combining survey with near census-level set top box data to provide the necessary big samples. Print already projects survey data to circulation. Outdoor is fusing survey data with traffic counts and new measures of people seeing advertising. This growing use of data integration produces useful large sample measures of audience.

TV and Radio made their mark by reaching many consumers. They still do, only it takes more units. And here, demographic targeting is vital. A brand targeting woman 18-to-34 doesn't want only women 18-34.  It's simply saying younger woman are worth more. Targeting isn't obsolete. It's a smart brand's way of focusing the mass audience delivery it needs.

The Internet, which can identify and sell just women 18-34 at a premium will find that precision unwelcome. The surrounding ages, which bring the price down, have value too.

The next sophistic warning concerns how audience is being counted.  Again my paraphrase:

Ratings no longer measure what needs to be measured. Even the research companies admit that tuning isn't viewing and hearing isn't listening. The key to success is to understand today's consumer, not yesterday's ratings.

The Hole in Holistic

But how do we do that? Understanding something as complex as consumer behavior requires deconstructing it into its essential pieces. That lets us play with the pieces to see how they work. It's called testing. That's how Henry Ford lowered the cost of the Model T.  To test you have to measure.  And that's why no single measure can ever tell all we need to know.

Even the magic ROI can't do it. To improve ROI we need to experiment with the pieces that produce it.  Can we make the creative better?  Copy testing measures are needed. Are the right consumers being reached?  Consumption data are needed. Are they attentive to the message? Engagement data are needed.  Is the media buy cost-effective?  Ratings data are needed.

The ratings will always be a useful measurement of media value. They separate message delivery, which the media control, from advertising communication, which advertisers control.  An holistic measurement model which mixes the two and loses the contribution of each is a giant step backwards.

New consumer measures of advertising effects are necessary and abundant. But hear me You Who do Wisdom. Ratings aren't the problem. They are just one piece of a complicated answer.

Erwin Ephron is an authority on advertising and the father of "recency planning." His fresh ideas about how ads work today have changed the way campaigns are planned throughout the world. Erwin

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