Imaginary numbers on the web: audience figures from space

 Silly, silly, silly

Every form of media tries to exaggerate its influence to get the attention of marketers.  Eventually, the marketers get wise, get cross and demand reform.  Some new, better and fairer (but still flawed) way of measurement is then agreed as the medium matures. It will still have holes, but some can be patched.

Those of us that have been on the wrong end of a web or email marketing pitch have long been sceptical of the number of ‘unique vistors’ and opt-in addresses that are quoted. Now a couple of reports(self interested to some degree of course) have come out to question both cookies and page views, the two classic metrics for looking at online reach.  Clever Windows based net users clear out their cookies with anti-spyware tools regularly (or let it happen automatically) to stop their systems being bogged down with digital spies.  This means new cookies are installed and the reach of sites is thus exaggerated.  comScore, the source of one report, suggests that this can lead to a 150% jump in the numbers advertisers are quoted by the sites involved.  comScore suggests its own, panel based method (which brings problems of its own).  Nielsen/NetRatings suggests that time on a site is a better idea as in an era of blockbuster sites like YouTube and eBay people stay in one place longer.  This makes sense to me, but then again these are the people who have consistently cooked up funny numbers about other kinds of media…with stupid devices in homes asking punters to push a button when someone enters a room they are watching tv in, etc.  Nonsense.

For me, the genius of web marketing is accountability.  As it matures, standards for this will have to be agreed but my instinct is that some combination of pay per click, time spent by unique users and and panel based research will all have a part to play in combination.  Cookies may well crumble away as they are associated with spyware.  At the end of the day though, marketing budget holders need to remain skeptical of the numbers they are shown and look instead at broader long term perception and sales trends. 

To get clean data, you need consumer buy in.  To get that, you have to give them something.  I think the answer is DRM free content in exchange for a little more secure, anonymous audience tracking – seems a fair deal to me.  Advertisers and media independents should press hard for it.   

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