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Households vs Persons: TV Data’s Biggest Hurdle

June 20th, 2019   ||    by Alan Wolk

While it’s become increasingly easier to collect data on TV viewers thanks to the shift to digital delivery and innovations like ACR (Automatic Content Recognition), TV data still has a big issue to overcome before it becomes as exact as digital data. That’s because TV viewing is rarely done solo—and so the viewership numbers that advertisers and networks get are household numbers, not “person” numbers.

How TV gets around that, and if it even matters, were major themes at the Cynopsis Data and Measurement Conference, held this month in New York City. Hulu’s director of ad sales research, Asaf Davidov, explained how Hulu was attempting to drill down beyond the household to identify who is watching. Their tactics include monitoring social media and tracking what device the show is being watched on.

“Because subscribers have to download our app and then log in, we can usually tell which family member is watching,” he said.

Another interesting statistic, one that points to why figuring out who in the household is watching is becoming more important, was mentioned by A4 Media’s senior vice president of product, Wael Sabra, who noted that while the number of TV sets per household was decreasing, the number of viewers overall has stayed the same. That would indicate that there is more co-viewing going on than ever before, and the need to determine who is watching is even greater.

Or is it?

There’s another school of thought that says that TV advertising, with its emphasis on branding, just needs to get close enough, that there’s no strong advantage to having 100% accuracy in your TV viewing data.

The crux of that argument stems from the differences in why people advertise on TV and why they run banner and search ads on digital platforms.

The latter is a direct response campaign, where the advertiser is expecting the viewer to take a concrete action as a result of seeing the ad, and the success of the campaign is based on the ads ability to make that action happen, which in turn relies heavily on the ad being served to the right user.

TV commercials, on the other hand, are often created for the purposes of branding or burnishing the brand’s image, so that when consumers do become interested in that particular category, they put the advertiser in their consideration set.

Given that TV ads need to reach a broad audience, it’s not a necessity that the audience is an exact match to the demo the advertiser wants to hit—the extra cost of refining the audience is likely not worthwhile and hitting household members instead of the ultimate decision-maker does not have any real negative effects.

That’s doubly true when there’s no way to prove who was paying attention to the ad: the household member the spot was aimed at might have been playing with their phone or getting a snack from the kitchen. At the same time, the person who was paying attention to the ad, while, not part of the advertiser’s desired demo, might go on to influence the purchase decision.

“It’s also about finding a balance between understanding audiences and respecting their privacy,” notes Videa’s president, Shereta Williams, who also spoke at the Cynopsis event. “If people feel that tracking is overly intrusive, then that is going to have a negative effect.”

Williams’s comment is precisely why we’re unlikely to ever get to exact person measurement for TV. Creating a device that tracks who is in the room every time the TV is on would be perceived as overly intrusive, not to mention creepy. What’s more, most advertisers don’t seem to need or want that sort of precision: for advertisers looking to use TV for branding and other top of the funnel messaging, “very close” is more than enough.


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