Close-Up: Live Issue - Does online need a measuring tool?

Opinion is divided over whether offline methods can be applied to digital, Claire Billings reports.

Online advertising's lack of a standard measurement tool that is directly comparable to existing offline methods is an argument that continues to rage.

It's an issue the digital ad industry has been debating hard in recent years. However, with online adspend surging at such a rate that it is a regular fixture in marketing budgets (it grew 60 per cent in 2004, according to Internet Advertising Bureau figures), the argument is being forced into the open.

One of the reasons for the renewed focus is the forthcoming launch of the IPA's cross-media planning survey. Touchpoints, which launches in January, will provide planning data across all media using established panel-based measurement systems such as Barb, Rajar, National Readership Survey and Postar. Online, although included in the planning tool, is conspicuous for its lack of trading currency.

The concern is that the lack of an industry-wide system could stunt future growth of the digital medium because it would limit online marketing to ads that simply drive sales: current measurement tools only support ads that can be monitored on click-through rates.

FMCG companies such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever rely heavily on brand-awareness activity and, at the moment, spend little on digital marketing.

In order to switch more of their budgets online, some brand managers are demanding a currency they can compare to offline media.

Although nearly everyone - from online agencies to media owners - can see the benefits of a standard measurement system, few are convinced such a system should compare to the established systems used by traditional media. In fact, many in the industry argue that using the same methodology as offline media would actually damage online's argument.

Opponents also argue that as offline measurement systems are already out of date, there's little point in developing an online system that uses the same criteria.

As always, money is one of the key barriers to change. The cost of developing a universal tool is estimated at around £5 million. While the IPA argues that this is a drop in the ocean compared with the amount of advertising it would generate, some digital media owners that would have to pay for it - companies such as MSN and Yahoo! - don't see the benefits, though AOL, as a member of IPA Touchpoints, supports the idea.

In the US, competition between digital measurement tools is actively encouraged. In the UK, the global players Comscore and Nielsen provide planning tools, but there are discrepancies between elements such as their panel sizes and methodologies.

The IAB joined forces with the IPA 18 months ago to conduct research into bringing these two systems into line with one another. However, this idea has since been abandoned in favour of a new standard. This, to some, seems a waste of resources: if an old-fashioned standard measurement tool is to be developed, Comscore and Nielsen will compete for it.

The issue is currently being debated by the IPA division the Digital Marketing Group to work out the best way forward. The IAB is also understood to be considering its own measurement system, based on different criteria to those used in above-the-line. The debate looks set to run for a while yet.

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DIGITAL MEDIA OWNER - Giles Ivey, interactive marketing director of sales, AOL

"At the moment, 20 per cent of media consumption and time is online, yet we only take 5 per cent of ad revenues.

"What would help bridge that gap in the short term is having the same confidence in online media as offline.

"I suppose people want media comparability and transparency. The language of offline is often about coverage of target audience and frequency and, until we have a common currency, clients that demand that kind of information will struggle to commit the kind of budgets we'd like them to commit to online.

"Online is already accountable if you're counting sales, but it doesn't tell you who's buying."

INDUSTRY BODY - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA

"The business case is clear: Bellwether (and other sources) puts the UK expenditure on online media at 4 per cent or £1.7 billion per annum, but the Internet Advertising Bureau claims that online has a 19 per cent share of individual media usage. Bellwether shows that while 25 per cent of companies spend more than 5 per cent of their budget online, 75 per cent spend less than 5 per cent. So, if there was real confidence in the customer data, online ad revenues could easily double or even triple. Even if the research costs £5 million a year, it's a drop in the ocean."

MEDIA BUYER - Ed Ling, strategy development director, i-level; vice-chairman, Digital Marketing Group

"There is a case, but we need to do more work and then we need to make a compelling business case. The real question is, can we improve what we've already got or do we need to start from scratch?

"Everyone is open to it and can see the value, especially for FMCGs, and to be able to plug it into Touchpoints, but we need the media owners to pay for it. But if they don't want to, are we going to die in a ditch for it? It's right to raise the debate but we're still going through a lot of consultation."

CLIENT - Jamie Galloway, director of digital media, COI

"It is an interesting one, because when you're putting together a media plan, certain clients want something they're familiar with.

"But the requirements of our campaigns are so varied that aligning online to a system comparable to existing panel-based measurement tools might be too simplistic. As TV becomes more digital, there will be a greater ability to track live response and interaction rather than projecting it across a particular panel.

"Increasingly, the requirements for live information that digital provides is a bigger issue for us."


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