A view from Sue Unerman

The industry has much to learn from TV

Media research is not perfect. Never has been.

Depending on the perspective of the critic, research can be criticised because: the panel is too small; opinions only represent a snapshot of a particular time; or the questions asked are too broad (does "Have you seen the front page of this newspaper?" determine if someone is a reader of that title?). This makes media planning more difficult in terms of precision and accuracy.

Relatively speaking, TV has always been a very plannable medium for advertising. Although the size of the Barb panel has been criticised, it is possible to access ratings by programme and by minute. So in terms of accountability against return on investment, TV tends to perform well. In TV, where we can see how each spot is doing, we can understand the detail of what is influencing sales more easily than other media. This is one factor in why TV has thrived commercially.

Other media have habitually kept day-by-day performance numbers to themselves. For instance, although print publishers often knew how their title sold from day to day or week to week, this data was not shared with media agencies. This made it difficult to understand print's role in a campaign. Its impact might be different than expected according to average figures simply because a lull or a spike in sales meant the medium wasn't performing as modelled. 

TV was the medium with the most detailed ratings data in the public domain – a significant advantage for "plan-ability".

When there is so much shared understanding about traditional TV metrics and, indeed, when the medium has benefited so much from those metrics over the long term, it's a shame that it's so difficult to find the same shared answers to basic questions about video-on-demand.

When planners consider VOD, we don't yet have the equivalent detail, accuracy and experience of Barb data. So we need to collaborate with media owners to seek information that will allow us to put the same level of detailed thinking that we do for TV into VOD. Of course, clients spending millions on their audiovisual brand plan expect nothing less.

Yet very basic questions seem to be receiving more and more guarded answers. The tone of some of those answers reminds me of the responses newspapers used to give press buyers in the heyday of print. When buyers asked for daily sales figures – which they knew newspapers had access to – sometimes they would be met with: "We are unable to release unique users numbers broken out by month." Other times, there would be a more human response: "It's extremely frustrating here in terms of what we can and can't share but I am doing everything I can to get you the information you want."

Planners have sources they can access for data about non-linear shares of viewing or unique reach impressions, by month and by supplier. However, those suppliers don't always agree on the industry figures and yet will not give alternative figures. Is it because they don’t have them or because they don’t want to share them? 

Is it understandable that media owners are reticent to open up in this way? Maybe. Is this is a good sales strategy? Not at all.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom