Digital Content Newfronts: Measurement and Transparency. Please.

/ Apr 25, 2013

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This is the year that digital video has arrived — never mind that it has been a lucrative industry for years — this is it, this is the year. We’ve seen a major marketplace (Amazon) and multiple television networks like CNBC and The Weather Channel shift their attention to producing original content for the web. We’ve seen publishers like Conde Nast and Meredith appoint heads of video production. And we’ve heard that this year’s Digital Content Newfront presenters will cumulatively bring in $1 billion in ad deals.

But how can media buyers and agencies justify $1 billion worth of media buys when the online video space still lacks standardized measurement and transparency?

Industry-Standard Measurement

As the industry is just now coming of age, we’re still not at a point where there is a commonly accepted standard for tallying up success. “It’s almost like we’re in a beta environment,” says MyDamnChannel’s director of advertising sales, David Kaplan. “It’s not like online video is television. Everyone’s got their own players, delivery methods and definitions to what counts as a view.”

While television heavily relies on the Nielsen rating system to measure viewers for a live broadcast, the online video industry is in a state of measurement identity crisis.

According to MediaLink chairman and CEO, Michael Kassan, in a recent byline for MediaBizBloggers: “These models are supposed to offer marketers a blueprint that strikes the right balance across several media and extracts the most from their ad budgets.”

What does online video offer for marketers and media buyers who want to “extract the most from their ad budgets” and make the right ad buys? Nothing as simple, or as clear, as television.

AOL, Yahoo, YouTube and many of the multi-channel networks actually do use Nielsen and/or Comscore to monitor viewers, views and engagement in a very traditional, television-like way. But that’s as close to a comparison to television that online video measurement will get, as there is still no industry-wide consensus on even which metrics offer the most value.

For instance, Hulu measures based on category — comedy, drama, action — then sells against category performance rather than individual shows or clips. What’s more, Hulu values completion rates as the core metric by which it sells its inventory. Advertisers pay the video site only if the viewer watches the entire ad.

Meanwhile, in the large online corner that is YouTube Land, multiple metrics and measurement models are duking it out. You have total monthly views and unique viewers tallied by Comscore, to views being gathered by multi-channel networks against various categories. And as of late YouTube has started to factor in “watch time” as a primary viewing metric. So many options, none of which are as simple as a physical viewer watching a TV show at initial broadcast, as tallied by Nielsen.

To further cloud the issue, the debate continues on what the most important metric actually is in online video — viewers, or repeated views, or shares?  Comments? Social media mentions? Who decides?

Is social engagement — number of comments, “likes,” shares — on a web video worth more than the number of unique viewers or unique views it pulls in? As the Internet has shown time and again, it is possible for a video to get a large amount of views due to controversial or shocking content and a high level of traffic is not necessarily indicative of a brand-safe space.

It doesn’t make sense to mimic the Nielsen rating of an individual viewer in the digital industry, nor does it make sense to have multiple indicators of success. What will be the metric then? Does there have to be one single GRP-like unit for online video anyway? Maybemaybe not.

“Incomplete measurement can damage any effort. Good measurement leads to discovery. Bad measurement leads to mistakes.”  Wise words from Mr. Kassan.

Can you blame the ad buyers then, for being so hesitant to spend big dollars in a space that they are not only struggling to understand, but measure effectively and consistently?

And this will only get more tricky as networks like NBC continue blurring lines between TV and online content.

But how can platforms compete on a level playing field riddled with information hoarders?

Transparency — Information is Power

Right now the general sense is that there is an overabundance of data in digital video. So why is it locked away in towers where only a few people ever get a look at it?

Nielsen ratings have worked for decades not only because they are objective and remain consistent but because that objective, consistent information is made available to the public, whether networks opt in or not.

And while some Comscore data is freely available, most companies, including AOL, Yahoo!, Blip and Hulu, shield their real numbers from public eye. (And don’t even get us started on buying views and view-botting!)

You’d think hiding this data is a sign of embarrassment, and maybe under-performance anxiety. Perhaps these platforms really do have abysmal views. Unlikely though, as small viewership doesn’t equate to thriving comment sections, which can consistently be found under AOL and Yahoo!’s video content.

An industry can’t and won’t be truly competitive without a transparent atmosphere that enables strong businesses to thrive and the under-performers to push to be better, especially as online video’s “big brother” continues to inch closer and closer.

Television and Digital Are Merging – Duh!

The Newfronts happening during TV’s Upfront season is not a coincidence, as the Newfronts were created to help the video space come of age as well as help brands feel comfortable buying online video programs. Hosting the Newfronts while advertisers are focused on buying video is a logical move.

But now that television businesses are investing in or acquiring digital video companies like Funny or Die and Revision3, as well as greenlighting original “digital-only” programming, merging the two seems like an ideal next step. TV is not just TV anymore, and digital should not be just digital. These upfront sessions should be about video, regardless of the screen it’s available on at that time.

On the eve of the Digital Content Newfronts, the future of the online video industry has never looked so bright and lucrative. But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a lot of work to be done.

Fruzsina Eordogh contributed to this piece.

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