Media Evaluation Strategies: Conquer the Battle of Universes

No, this is not (yet another) remake of H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi story War of the Worlds. Indeed, instead of talking science fiction we are in the realm of facts and hard data. Or at least, we should be.

Unfortunately, too many marketers have ended up in a fictive world, even though they have real numbers to work with. In fact, when Sveriges Annonsörer (the Swedish Advertisers’ Association) did an audit of some of their members and how they use media data to plan, buy and evaluate their advertising media selection, every company (100%) in the audit got their numbers wrong. In other words, even though they had good data to work with, each and every company audited had made errors in interpreting what the data meant and/or how to use the data when comparing different media options. It may not be as scary as an alien invasion of our planet, but if you are charged with maximizing the effects of your media budget there are real reasons why many people in marketing should perhaps not sleep so soundly at night.


So how did this happen? 

These companies, and the people involved, were successful, professional, and experienced, with sizeable media budgets and highly rated media agencies at their service. And yet they all made mistakes. 

There are several reasons for this. In a previous column (The WYSIWYG of media), we discussed the challenge of words that represent something entirely different to what they suggest. For example, remember that an impression is no such thing at all. Instead, it is a metric that shows whether an ad has been delivered to your device, but says nothing about what the recipient (be it a human being or a bot) looking at the screen receives. But hopefully it will also turn out to be a viewable impression, and even better, a viewed impression. These differences are of course crucial if we are to plan, negotiate and evaluate our investments – and yet they are so often misunderstood and treated incorrectly.

But that is only one of the errors most companies make. Another equally common and critical mistake is to treat all media metrics as meaning the same thing across media channels. But there are major differences between, for example, measuring how people are exposed to a video running on a digital screen in a shopping mall versus how we view a banner ad on our laptop or smartphone. Not to mention how a post by an influencer on their social media account compares to a double page spread in a glossy magazine. 

Of course there are differences in data collection methods and audience measurement systems for different media channels, but the key difference – and the corresponding crucial error many companies make in not recognizing this – is much more fundamental than that:

Media is not a single universe with different types of media channels or delivery systems within it. There are indeed different channels and delivery mechanisms, but the challenge goes much deeper than that. To avoid false comparisons, the first and most important change needed is to separate media into three different universes before we even think about how to compare them.

3 media universes

One media universe, which also happens to be the oldest, is based on measuring media deliveries to people. Here, the numbers show how many people have had the opportunity to see, i.e. OTS, your ad. This is the basis for how we measure “traditional” media like TV, radio, newspapers, direct mail, and out-of-home.

The second media universe is based on measuring screens. The metrics focus on counting impressions, i.e. how many times an ad has been delivered to a screen – and ideally also visible on the screen, and for how long. But until now, there has been no automatic connection or translation between viewable/in-screen impressions and how many people this actually represents.

The third media universe is a derivative of the second, but instead focuses on accounts rather than screens. The various social media platforms will give you data on distribution, but even though there is a registered user for each account in the platform there is no automatic connection between a social media account and a person. People have multiple accounts, some accounts are bots or fake in other ways, and yet others represent groups of people. 

3 keys to better understand your advertising metrics

It goes without saying that comparing people with screens or accounts is like the proverbial analysis of different types of fruit. And yet so many advertisers – and even their consultants – tend to fall into this trap. It should therefore be no surprise that this is an area where much work is taking place by industry bodies such as the WFA (World Federation of Advertisers), and locally in Sweden by Sveriges Annonsörer*. Some of the key take-outs from that work which hopefully will help advertisers make better – or at least better informed – decisions include:

  • Since it is only people that can buy products or like brands, the more the media evaluation can be based on how many people you reach – and how often and how well you reach them – the better the outcome is likely to be.

  • There is a significant difference between media reach, campaign reach and ad reach – so make sure you look at the right number in your evaluation. A site with X million visits per week or an influencer with Y million followers is a far cry from your campaign, or even more so, a single ad being exposed to that number of people.

  • Thirdly, and at the risk of being repetitive, there is a major difference between distribution, visibility, and viewing. An impression is in principle the same type of metric as counting if the direct mail flyer has been delivered in your mailbox, but says nothing about anybody seeing the ad, and even less about level/length of attention. To continue the comparison, a visible impression means that the flyer has landed on the kitchen table in front of the person sorting their mail. Of course, what is deemed as visible differs by media type, but usually involves some sort of threshold levels for “how much” (of the ad that can be seen) and “how long” (were people exposed to the ad). For both of these, more (bigger/longer) means an increased chance of the ad being seen, which is what is measured by attention/fixation. In following the comparison, a viewed impression means that the person is looking at the flyer and maybe also flicking through the pages.

So when you want to compare different media options, make sure you are comparing apples with apples:

  1. Does the data represent people, screens, or accounts?
  2. Is it about delivered, visible or viewed?
  3. Is it about counting how many you reach, or does it also show how much/how well your message is received?

And keep in mind that only people who have been exposed to your ad and have looked at it can be influenced by it in terms of how much do they like your brand and how much do they want to buy your products?

* For more information on Sveriges Annonsörers’ “Cross Media Measurement” project and the reports produced by the project, please click here

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