Earlier today, I looked at the issues of metrics surrounding this year's upfronts, particularly regarding the question of DVR viewing. At the end of that post, I moved the conversation toward one of the hot "new" words in the day in the media industry: engagement.
The engagement hypothesis is that the engaged viewer is more likely to watch the program carefully, devoting their full attention to it, and possibly the accompanying product placement and commercials. In theory, if the message is right, the engaged viewer is more likely to get the message, get it repeatedly, and buy the product. With the advent of the Internet, audiences and producers have more opportunities to interact with one another. Producers have more opportunities to create relatively inexpensive, broad, on demand forums and mechanisms for interaction with their brand or their media property. Thus, more and more ways to engage consumers and get them to the set to watch the program at least 3 days from the original airing.
Intuitively, this all makes sense. However, engagement is also one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, there is lots of agreement that engagement is good, but no clear cut definition of what it actually is. So, for all of our measurement capability, this concept is extremely tricky to quantify. Even if you have a definition, how do you effectively boil a passionate devotion to the X-Files into a number? And this is all before you even think to tackle the daunting task of establishing a clear causal link to buying patterns around sponsor products. Ironically, it all brings us back to a question of which matters more, program ratings and engagement or commercial ratings and engagement?
Internet distribution, for all the networks' and advertisers' concern about monetizing the medium, does offer multiple opportunities to retain eyeballs for more minutes of the day. This week, comScore and CTAM/Nielsen both released reports that indicated that somewhere between 63 and 75% of Americans online are watching streaming video online. There's probably good and possibly bad news here. First, the probably good: more online video consumption has not decreased the overall viewing audience - net television audiences are up. The possibly bad news is that most of the viewing goes on over YouTube, not on network sites, and without the assurance that advertising will be part of the show.
Web metrics, although some in theory are easier to collect, are tricky because the range of activity online is so complex and multi-layered that isolating just one easy number, like the television ratings of yesteryear, doesn't tell the whole story. Nielsen's announcement this week that they were ditching the page views metric for time spent illustrates this. For a page with streaming video, time spent may help measure the video viewing, but not the advertising. Seeing a banner ad next to a video player for 30 minutes may or may not be more effective than seeing it for 15. And, there are some sites where you don't need to spend a lot of time on to get the gist of, yet you could still very well see and remember the advertising. There is probably no silver bullet here, but there is a need for multiple metrics to reflect the various uses of websites and the efficacy of advertising in various contexts. The web's interactive nature and the relative ease of collecting data from it may be a good platform to measure engagement, but without a clear definition of what this is in the web context, and how it may relate to television viewing, many of the same issues found in traditional media emerge.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and the role that the new Association for Downloadable Media -- an industry association dedicated to metrics, education and advocacy for industry players who produce, distribute and monetize portable media -- takes in it.
Could it be that this fear of content viewing without advertising is pushing television to commercial ratings as a way to assure advertisers that their message is getting through in at least one medium? Will C3 become the metric of choice next year, or will the currency become more complex? Will networks and cable outlets diverge further in the currency in which they are willing to deal, based on their own strengths and audiences or push for a common standard? Could television and online video metrics converge at some point? Will advertisers accept that? Stay tuned...