Media: Outdoor audience measurement

The Postar spat over outdoor data could run and run, Alasdair Reid says.

As media industry spats go, last week's misunderstandings surrounding Postar - specifically its ability to deliver on recent upgrade promises - constitute a relatively mild storm in a rather small teacup. So far at least. If this week's diplomatic efforts fail and various technical fixes prove implausible, then the medium as a whole could end up looking very silly indeed.

For aficionados of media research, however, the whole business has proved all too predictable. Postar promised to add transport sector figures to its repertoire by the end of 2004. That's always the way of it. New surveys are always promised in time for Christmas - though exactly which Christmas is sometimes a little vague.

That the industry is still squabbling weeks after the deadline has passed is not wholly funny, however. At stake here is a grand unification plan for outdoor research.

Although Postar has been running for almost a decade, it has only ever measured one sector of the industry - roadside posters. Until now, if you used transport or retail-oriented media, then you had to find other ways of planning its use and assessing its effectiveness.

Since the medium's big Barcelona conference, there has been a determination to make Postar more comprehensive. But we're not talking about the most recent Barcelona conference; the issue dates back to 2001.

But it was at Barcelona 2004 that the Postar chairman, Ken New, was able to reveal that data on railway trackside and Tube station ads was imminent.

Last week, however, it was revealed that the data - gathered by the media owners themselves, notably Viacom and Maiden - was still failing technical validation tests demanded by the IPA.

The media owners themselves say the problems are minimal and easily fixable.

The rest of the industry will be the judge of that - and not just the IPA, at that. One reason for suspicion is that viewing figures seem huge in comparison with roadside audiences. That might reflect reality - but roadside contractors will need some persuading.

1. Postar was launched in 1996 as a replacement for the increasingly discredited Oscar system, which only really measured the numbers of people likely to come into the general vicinity of each poster site.

2. In an effort to produce accurate audience data akin to the data commonly available in other media, Postar introduced the concept of the Visibility Adjusted Impact, which will give a closer statistical approximation to the number of people who not only pass but are likely to see any particular site.

3. Postar has a chairman, New, and a secretariat of seven staff under the managing director, Helen Tridgell. The main Postar board includes New and Tridgell plus 12 people from across the outdoor industry.

4. Postar also runs a series of sub-committees, which cover methodology, user groups, standards, data exchange and finance issues.

5. For many years now, the outdoor contractors have identified gaps in its research product as a barrier to growth. At its Barcelona conference in 2001, buoyed by a strong market during the dotcom boom, the industry set itself a target of 10 per cent of UK display advertising revenue by 2004. It was an ambitious goal that it failed to meet.

6. The biggest problem with Postar was that it only covered roadside - in other words, 55 per cent of the total out-of-home advertising market. Transport, retail and leisure already account for 45 per cent - and that percentage is growing.

7. The industry has chosen to look for ways to modify Viacom Outdoor's own TRAC research covering the Tube and Maiden's AdRail study and import the reconstituted figures into Postar. The problem is ensuring that the figures are properly adjusted to reflect realistic contact with advertising sites - not just raw traffic figures of people passing them.

8. The current argy bargy about transport sector figures is not the only question-mark hanging over Postar. Some outdoor contractors have been arguing for years that the figures for roadside have seriously been under-representing the audience the medium commands. A whole-scale recalibration of the system would cause massive upheaval.

ADVERTISERS

- Advertisers are fickle when it comes to second- and third-tier media. Outdoor needs a credible research system if it is to compete against radio, cinema and online, otherwise it could lose share.

- Outdoor media owners were shaken back in 2001 when Alan Rutherford, the worldwide media director of Unilever, accused them of complacency.

They promised to take this on board - but advertisers will be unforgiving if they feel that the contractors have begun to suffer from serious memory loss.

OUTDOOR MEDIA BUYERS

- The outdoor specialists are not entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of a new trading currency for transport advertising.

- But they are desperate for more usable information on the faster-growing and more interesting (from a planning point of view) sectors of the out-of-home market. They are determined to get what they want.

MEDIA OWNERS

- Any squabble between roadside and transport contractors could undermine outdoor's unified message.

- Outdoor has in recent times succeeded in attracting revenue and goodwill in increasing measure. The media owners must work hard if that goodwill is not to evaporate.

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