Measure the Person or Measure the Device

To measure the person or the device is arguably the critical choice for media measurement.

The choice made can shape what one understands about how people use media today and that choice ultimately affects our insights into how we think people will use media tomorrow.


The media measurement industry understands this, but can do better in explaining to everyone else how that choice matters.

Let’s take broadcast radio and streaming radio as an example.

In the biggest cities in the US, broadcast radio listening is measured by Nielsen’s Portable People Meter, a small passive pager-like device that a person wears on their body, much like…well a pager.

Imagine a person preparing a meal in the kitchen for a 30-minute period, listening to a radio station.  Mid-way through this 30-minute period, they have to step away from the kitchen, and away from the radio, to attend to a child playing outside for 10 minutes.  They return to the kitchen and continue listening to the radio. In this basic example, the meter collecting exposure to the encoded radio signal will indicate they listened to the radio for 10 minutes, stepped away for 10 minutes, and then listened again to the same station for a further 10 minutes – as the meter on the person’s body determines that the person was within earshot of the radio.

Now, using the same scenario, imagine the person is in the kitchen for 30-minutes, but this time is streaming Pandora through their smartphone.  In this scenario, the device (the smartphone), not the person, is being measured.  When the person steps away for 10 minutes to attend to their child playing outside, the device has no way to know whether someone is listening or not.  The end result will show 30 consecutive minutes of uninterrupted listening to Pandora on the person’s smartphone, regardless of whether there was one person or many persons listening to any of the streaming music.

Hence the biggest disadvantage to measuring the device.  It might be ‘playing’, but is anyone listening?  Is anyone watching?  Is anyone actively engaged with the content?

And yes, I recognize that the PPM is not foolproof either, but at least it measures exposure to an audio signal which is equated as listening.

Reviewing the streaming data will show an uninterrupted 30-minute period of listening.  It will likely be assumed that the person is paying full attention to Pandora’s music, even when other lifestyle data will indicate that people come and go from their audio playing device whether it is a broadcast radio or a streaming device.  Some will conclude that people spend longer periods of time engaged and listening to Pandora than their local radio station, which is also wrong.  Data points like this will then be used to support the continued push of some services over others because listening and time spent listening metrics that look similar, but aren’t, are compared to one another as if they are apples-to-apples.

Misuse of data is nothing new – politicians do this to their advantage, businesses do the same.  In my experience, it’s seldom as intentional as one might conclude, still it’s harder to correct a misstated fact than it is to get it correct in the first place.  But it happens.  It keeps researchers busy and it drives them crazy at the same time! And it’s a classic example of how media measurement data is used to support an argument without fully understanding how it was being collected.

Measurement in the web/mobile space is just as complicated and can be fraught with even more misconceptions.

In recent years, both Nielsen and ComScore have moved towards building more sophisticated user-panels to measure web usage in an attempt to measure across devices, which still remains as the holy grail for digital measurement.  But this approach is arguably open to misuse through measurement boosters from fake users.  Companies themselves can collect data from their own servers, as many newsrooms currently do, but even this is flawed as these systems struggle to differentiate a user that might access a site through four different devices and be counted as four different users.  Hence, panels of people become the preferred approach, despite the pros and cons that come with almost any data source.

Media measurement is a critical field to better understand media behavior and prompts us to think about a critical choice – measure the person or measure the device. Let’s also not forget the second part  – understanding how the data was collected and how it should be explained in the bigger media-using picture.


What it means for media when people switch their devices every three minutes

People change the media device they are using on average 21 times per hour when they are at home.

This is a remarkable finding, though it becomes more believable the more you think about your own habits.  It also begs the question as to whether this number will go higher still as we become more savvy with screens and handling multiple sources of content and information.

This research finding was announced last week to relatively little fanfare.  It is part of a UK-based study that is looking into the future of British consumerism.  As MediaWeek explains, this was a qualitative study of 200 people, which asked people to report which devices they used during one hour of an evening.  The respondents used their mobile phones to record what devices they were using.


I am intrigued to learn more about this study, but haven’t found much online so far.  Taking these findings at face-value (and I have no reason not to), it’s worth taking a moment to think through what this means for the media industry.

  • Keep in mind that “21” is only an average.  Some respondents, and hence some demographic groups, likely switched many more than 21 times, just as others switched far less.  This raises the bar even higher for all media content producers – that whatever content is being accessed, there is a never-ending need to be continuously entertained and that it must be deemed worthwhile for nearly every moment.  Otherwise, the consumer has a nearly endless source of other sources to check out, not to mention other devices to look at as well.
  • One of the most common questions I hear in radio research is what is the right length for a news piece, topic, or interview? Hopefully, this study (and others like it) will make this question moot and will eliminate the notion of any such thing as a right length for an audio story or a video.  The length is right for as long as the listener/viewer/reader is engaged, is learning something new, and wants to consume more.  For example, in US Public Radio research, quality has always superseded quantity.  Every research study has shown that the length of a piece is irrelevant.  If a piece has quality, then more times than not, the audience is hooked and engaged.  The best storytelling will pause any device switching.
  • Television, in my mind, benefits from being a natural media companion to social media and multiple devices, since typically, you have sit still to consume it.  TV is also leading the way with its experimentation, much of it successfully.  This study underlines why TV shows already promote tweeting during the most popular shows and encourage voting for the most popular entertainer.
  • For the web, it’s a case of the shoe being on the other foot.  Not so long ago, it was the web that was disrupting broadcast media with its customized content on a scale that back then was unprecedented.  Now the web is fighting the same battle and is no different to any other media choice available.  Sure, the web has many more choices but unless it entertains, informs, or shows me something I want to share, then I’m gone.
  • For advertising – the principal target for this study – will this study be the death knell for the 30-second ad?  Surely, we can’t be far from it now.  Marketing is going through a dramatic change right now with greater emphasis on shorter, more personalized ads appearing in many different ways, particularly geotargeting.  One certainty is that any media content that does not adapt to the new ways we now consume media, doesn’t survive in a world in which media occasions are getting shorter and shorter.

Seth Godin is right.  We are our own media companies now.  Even bloggers, such as me, have to say something unique, striking, thought-provoking to capture your valuable reading time.  If you have made it this far in this blog post, then, first, thank you, but also, secondly, recognize that you’ve likely read this in just under 3 minutes, which is about the average time before a person switches their device yet again.

Five Media Predictions for 2014

The start of a new year provides a one-time, but too-short a moment to dream big and look ahead to the next twelve months.

I’m excited about 2014, not just on a personal and career front, but I can’t stop wondering where things will turn next for how we use media.

Below, I have listed five predictions for the year ahead.  Some of these are my own, others are inspired from elsewhere and duly credited.

  • Let’s hope that the media industry can finally move beyond the upcoming year being labelled as ‘this is the year of mobile‘.  Mobile has arrived already.  In the US, leading content providers in the digital space, such as ESPN, NPR, and The Guardian, are already delivering half (or very close to) of their digital traffic through mobile.  But, frustratingly, there are few players in media who share an honest story when it comes to mobile growth.  Yes, it’s growing with triple-figure percentage-growth, but that’s only because it started from zero not so long ago.  I’m being naive to expect distributors to speak honestly about how much of that amazing growth is in terms of more telling measures – such as persons reached or as a comparison to traditional audience routes, but the entire industry suffers when we’re not acknowledging that broadcast dollars, pounds, and euros are being currently replaced by digital pennies.  Rapid mobile growth does not mean that budgets will be balanced and profits are assured in the years to come.  When we see a direct replacement in revenue from broadcast to digital, then we can more honestly say that ‘this is the year of mobile’.  It won’t be 2014, but the year ahead will see us all move closer to that pivotal and game-changing landmark.
  • The iPad is not yet four years old, though its impact on home computing has been swift and dramatic.  While Apple’s competitors were slow to respond at first, the marketplace is now full of worthy alternatives.  Consumers have a choice to make: a laptop (or desktop) or a tablet?  In 2014, I expect many consumers will start to consider the second choice: what OS (Operating System) am I going to use?  Apple? Android? Windows? Or something else – Linux or Blackberry, etc. While many of the most popular apps offer the same experience, regardless of platform, many of us live in different environments across our own devices – a Windows laptop in the home or at work, an Android smartphone, and an Apple iPad was my own situation until a few weeks ago and it’s probably not a unique one.  Organizing our digital lives is already complicated, but having all devices within one system will make things much easier.
  • Depending on where you sit, you might be feeling quietly confident, economically speaking, about the year ahead.  That’s what the media sector is looking at right now and how its approaching 2014.  Given that things move so fast now in media circles, companies no longer have the option to grow and design products to grow organically – else a competitor is sure to swoop in.  So rather than create something new, companies acquire.  The year ahead might see many in media move from ‘wait and see’ to ‘act now or get left behind’. While this might bode well for consumer choice, companies need to get these big strategic decisions right.  Relatively new players such as Instagram and Snapchat are positioned to do well.  Other entities such as Netflix and Amazon are already moving into creating their own content to ensure they are ahead of the chasing pack. 2014 is going to be a pivotal year for many media entities and a fascinating one to watch.
  • Journalism enjoyed a wild ride in 2013.  The likely result by the end of this year is that many of us will consume news and information very differently than we do now.  Too many big things have happened in the past year, as Matthew Ingram points out, for there not to be some seismic changes very soon.  I have to believe Jeff Bezos has something transformative in mind for the Washington Post.  I cannot imagine the eBay billionaire making a $250 million investment into a brand new news venture not translating it into a massive change in investigative journalism.  And I am excited that an app such as Circa is getting attention and am hopeful that as a mobile-first platform, it can help show the rest of the industry how to “rethink how we consume news on a mobile platform, rather than just re-purposing or redesigning existing content”. All of these events and more will make journalism a fascinating area to watch and experience in the year ahead.
  • For our own sake and well-being, I believe that 2014 will be the year that we collectively realize it’s OK to miss out and go unplugged.  This is not a new idea.  And this movement is not just limited to how we consume media – there’s the Slow Food movement, the Go-Local movement, and more.  It all speaks to backing away from mindless and rapid consumption and re-balancing our hectic lives.  For media, our inability to break away from our screens is already a source of ridicule. We’re seeing it happen already as people start to unplug from the constant slew of updates and take back their own privacy by opting out of Facebook.  But there’s also growing awareness of what you might miss around you – your own children playing, your partner irritated at the lack of attention, not to mention our diminishing attention spans. It points to a re-calibration in the year ahead, realizing that technology has greatly altered our lives permanently and now we need to change and adapt to different relationships and behaviors.

I could list many more here, and some such as the rapid changes in advertising merit being the topic of a future post.  

But now it’s your turn: what are your media predictions for 2014?

Another trip down memory lane…to 1932

In the previous post, I took a timely look at a 2004 prediction for how things might be in 2014 – now less than three weeks away.

This time, I truly do want to take a trip down Memory Lane, back to the 1930’s, which in the US is when the roots were being laid down to measure how people use media.

The book, Audience Ratings: Radio, Television, Cable by Hugh Malcolm Beville provides an in-depth and absorbing review of how the media measurement industry began.  The need back then (and now, to some degree) was to show the impact of radio commercials on housewives spending habits in the study named “Sales Begin When Programs Begin” as the author describes below:

This was really an activity diary kept by a sample of 3,042 housewives.  The diary recorded – by half-hour periods 8am-5pm, for an entire week – the listening of household members plus the housewife’s other activities (whether accompanied listening or not) such as preparing meals, doing laundry, housekeeping, shopping). The purpose was to demonstrate a significant level of daytime listening by housewives, and that listening often accompanied or preceded activities in which advertisers’ products were used (soaps, cleansers, food, etc.).  Audience data by half hours for men, women, and children were published.

Seemingly, the simplicity of measuring media behavior in the 1930’s is in stark contrast to today.  Traditional media such as Radio, Television, and Newspapers struggle to measure usage in an age in which users no longer fit into easy-to-understand categories.  Add the fact that the digital side is awash with metrics and it’s not surprising that measuring any form of media behavior is becoming more complicated and expensive Then there are entities such as The Media Impact Project, that I highlighted earlier which want to take things in a very different direction for media measurement by focusing on impact rather than reach.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not wanting to go back to seemingly simpler times, least of all the hardship of the 1930’s.   For media measurement, the next decade will be fascinating.  Hopefully, we will all better understand how people use media so that we can tell and explain better stories.  But amidst all of the big data and the struggle to tell and share story lines, it’s worth making sense of where we are now by stepping back to see where it began.

A trip down Memory Lane…to 2014

As the year starts to wind down, many of us will be thinking about what might lie ahead in the next 12 months.

Predictions about the future can make compelling reading, but I’m always surprised why we seldom go back and see how many of the last set of predictions came true.  If we did, we would quickly realize that predicting one year ahead or many years ahead is actually incredibly difficult to do.  

One massive event that I’m sure was missing from the many media previews of 2013 was the irony of digital media suddenly taking an interest in the newspaper industry, namely Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post (as well as a handful of other notable newspaper acquisitions and investments).  While Bezos has yet to show his hand in how he might disrupt the newspaper industry, Amazon did catch nearly everyone off-guard with their plans that could potentially disrupt the shipping industry by starting a Sunday deliver service in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as London.

One could argue that Digital taking an interest in Newspapers is not too unusual.  After all, 2013 has been more of the same – lots of disruption everywhere.  Not surprisingly, the headlines in the media gravitate to key media players causing that disruption.  This brings me to a timely segue – the memorable EPIC 2014 video, which centered around the predicted merging of Google and Amazon into Googlezon.  

The 8-minute video, created in 2004, was presented from the ficitional viewpoint of the Museum of Media History and explored how popular news aggregators such as Google News could combine with now ‘taken-for-granted’ Web 2.0 technologies such as blogging, social networking and user participation in news reporting.

Not surprisingly, many predictions in EPIC 2014 did not come true.  However, the overarching trends in the video were right.  That’s quite a feat given how difficult it is to accurately predict what might happen 10 years into the future, and then harder still when we are thinking media.  For example, back in 2004, two media giants of today had only just begun: Facebook users existed only among Mark Zuckerberg’s peers at Harvard University and Netflix was still shipping out (many) DVD’s, ultimately leading to the downfall of a former giant, Blockbuster.  In terms of current-day essential media devices in 2004, the first iPhone was still three years away, as was the first Kindle, and the first iPad still another three years later.

Still, the video is well worth the watch, assuming you have an idle eight-minutes to spare before the oncoming rush of holidays.  While many forecasts don’t come true, it’s fun to predict: what are your predictions for the media industry in 2014?

A vision for a very different news media


Imagine a news media where the impact of journalism was measured not by how many people who saw the news report or show, but instead by the impact and the outcome on the audience.

This is one of the goals being sought by The Media Impact Project, based out of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  The Media Impact Project aspires to “be the global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media.”

Such a change could be transformative for all of media.  Instead of today’s mainstream news organizations who get the most ears and eyes reaping the biggest share of advertising revenue, independent and non-profit news organizations who are doing investigative journalism to help create a more informed public might get more fairly rewarded.  These valued sources might also stand a better chance of surviving the current ‘cut-throat’ environment in which organizations live or die by the ratings.

Personally, I think this is one of the most exciting developments in all of media research right now, one that could change the industry’s understanding of its audience and change the content we consume each day.  Here’s why: the method you use to count the number of eyes and ears who see a news report, a documentary, a show, or a film determines what gets produced and what continues to be produced.  When you change the way you count, you can change where the advertising dollars go and you can change the comparative value of genres, demographic segments, stars, hosts, and entire industries.  As Jon Gertner succinctly explains, “change the way you measure [America’s] culture consumption and you change [America’s] culture business, maybe even the culture itself“.

The essence of this project points to the limitations of traditional media measurement – selecting a random sample, tracking their behavior, and then extrapolating that small sample across the entire population within the confines of standard demographic groups.  Media companies that can target their users precisely, such as Pandora which can target ads to specifc groups – such as Hispanic females, aged 25-44, in a US metro – might render the current ratings system obsolete much more quickly than many might realize, but until then, the industry is stuck with a less-than-ideal measurement system.

That’s not to say creating a new system of impact metrics will be easy.  The Media Impact Project will pull together the smartest minds using the power of “big data” generated by the many social media networks.  From this, they seek to create ‘open-source mechanisms and processes to measure the impact of media content – not just in terms of what they say and share about a story or a show, but what actions they take thereafter.  Many news organizations – big or small – likely have an untapped qualitative goldmine of data that is not being fully explored and one that is getting bigger by the day. There is no consensus, yet, on how best to do this, but already several big thinkers are already leading that conversation.

The challenge here will be immense.  Researchers are still only at the beginning of understanding what content is share-able and how different cultures share information differently.  While they will be closely monitoring what we say and share in our social networks, our eyes will be watching them to see how a very different measurement system can create a very different media.

This is not about earbuds

If you show a ratings chart that pulls people out of their comfort zone, then inevitably their reaction is to focus on what is missing and what was not counted.  After all, that would explain the demise in the ratings.

From afar, this has been the reaction I have seen to the RRC‘s recent report on broadcast radio listening trends for US public radio, as well as trends for all radio.

The chart below is a wake-up call for the entire radio industry because it shows that there has been a steady (but also alarmingly quick) decline in the percentage of persons aged 6+ who listen to any measured media, which in this case is effectively any measured FM/AM/HD station.


The chart shows that radio usage has fallen by 13% on weekdays in the past three years across the 30 markets measured by Nielsen Audio’s PPM.

This naturally alarms anyone working in radio.  As a presenter of this type of “bad” news for many years in many settings, the reaction from readers and from those in the room is part-defensive and part-wanting to understand.

The defensiveness or denial stems from the worry that one’s own livelihood is on the line, that the data confirms their worst fear that though their own media behavior hasn’t changed, the mainstream has, and that change is permanent.

This is a very human reaction, but as Mark Ramsey points out “In order to rally and fight a problem, we must begin by recognizing its existence“.  Holding onto the standard claims about the near universal reach of radio conveniently sidesteps the critical issue of engagement with radio.

The “wanting to understand” entails listening to each of the theories proposed that explain the ratings demise.  Some have credit, which should be acknowledged to aid understanding, but many can be debunked where necessary, in order to help people focused on what is real or not and what is within their control.

Don’t get me wrong, the ratings chart above effectively does not include headset listening; the workaround provided is simply not used by the ‘average Joe’.  But if you see someone wearing a headset, are you willing to say that person is absolutely listening to a local FM/AM station?  Probably not.

Yes, streaming is growing exponentially and it is the future for audio.  But take a 1-minute look at the Triton Digital Rankers report and you’ll see that the “Pandora train” has already left the station, leaving other pure-plays and broadcast networks holding only steady, and far, far behind, at best.

True, podcasts are not counted in the ratings.  Sure, it alters listening behavior so that I can listen to a show when I want to, but I haven’t seen any data yet that justifies the claim that if it weren’t for podcasts, my numbers would be much, much higher.

What’s left is what’s within your control.  Not how media consumption is measured.  Not about what content is or not counted. Not whether there was an election this time last year.  It’s about making what you do – audio, video, words – the very best it can be and the most compelling for your audience. Again and again.

Ratings tell us where we’ve been and can project where we’re going.  They can also show whether what we currently do has a future.  By all means, absorb them, understand them, and go ahead and poke holes in them, but don’t sit still in your comfortable seat and blame it on the earbuds.


Welcome to How People Use Media

First, let me explain the purpose, getting beyond the title of this blog.

There’s a lot of information to share here.  I’m going to post key findings from the latest media research.  I’m going to point out how the way we consume media is quickly changing, and will likely only accelerate further.  I’m going to highlight what to keep in mind in how media usage is measured.  And I’m also going to share my own perspectives on how those who create media content need to be in a constant mode of change.  Times are changing and the audience is now in control.  Things aren’t going to back to how they were.

My own interest in how people use media stems from academia (learning how global news events are portrayed in the news media), to my work in London on how the news media covers specific issues, to my work in the US on how people use media and what they want and expect.

In the most recent chapter of my life, I worked at NPR.   I helped efforts to turn around shows such as Talk of the Nation that recently bowed out at a ratings-high.  I worked with the newsroom to help them better understand what the audience expects in the lead-up to a Presidential election. And I provided guidance to help de-mystify broadcast & streaming ratings so that staff and NPR member stations could better focus on the factors within their control, not what is beyond them.

I’m excited about this blog.  It’s a new direction for me and I hope it can be a means to start new conversations to help us all have a better understanding of how people use media.  I’ll also be posting much briefer updates on Twitter @HowPplUseMedia, and  I would be delighted to hear from you.