How do we measure audience?

Social media changed the communication landscape more drastically in the digital era than any other medium. With the very sudden evolution of communication power from; a one-way brand story, to a two-way discussion between brands and consumers, to brands having to listen and adapt to what consumers want. So now the question to marketers is; how do you measure digital effectiveness?

In this episode, Dr. James Piecowye and Paul Kelly discuss how the surge of digital content has changed the way we need to look at measurement. 



Dr. James Piecowye: Welcome to know your audience, a marketing mini cast that explores how knowing an audience can unlock greater insight. Over the last decade, we have seen a huge change in audience measurement data because of digital proliferation, and in no small part Facebook. 

In this episode, we explore what the change in audience measurement brought on by the digital era means to us. 

Up to this point, we’ve been talking about change, and change and how we understand audiences. One of the big areas where this change really comes to mind is in how we actually measure our audiences. And when we think about Kellogg’s, when we think about McDonald’s, when we think about what we’ve been talking about so far, and we bring it forward with technology, web 3.0, the old school audience measurement, and what we can do today are very different. And in some cases, one might say, our old way of thinking about audiences letting us down when we talk about audience measurement,

Paul Kelly: Not necessarily let down, I think it’s probably more evolution that happened. I think about the digital era, and I think when we talk about the digital era, we can acknowledge Google, obviously changing about how we access information, YouTube, about how we disseminate ourselves on video, but really that pivotal moment that measurement changed with the advent of Facebook. So I think, you know, when you start to look through the events of the last 12, 13, 14 years, a lot of the major global events from say, the Arab Spring through to things like presidential elections, through to even the Coronavirus communications, have all been shaped by information or misinformation and things on Facebook. And that’s really been the core catalyst, I think for what that meant to marketers because it shifted the value of where that audience sat forever from that traditional model of measuring ratings on TV and radio, and that’s just being the holy grail of the metric of how many people were listening, even though it’s one measurement, and that was how things are bought and sold and circulation figures from magazines and newspapers. And it was all based on representative samples as well, which I know we will discuss at some point, the failings of that potentially. But with that advent of digital really brought to market, as the power of measurement, or at least was posted. And that’s what the biggest issue, I think that’s facing a lot of not as marketers, but this could be as relevant a conversation, I think, for anybody in the whole Media and Communications business, or even a content creator, is that these measurements were supposed to give us the power to make decisions. 

James: So how are they failing us?

Paul: In a multitude of ways. First of all, it focuses on the numbers and not necessarily the quality of the audience, those metrics get lost. 

So if you take a step back, I think there’s a relief. A lot of people in 2010 ish, I’d say when there’s a critical mass on these platforms where: (we hear) “Oh great” you know, “We’ve got a high reach, a multi-channel way of reaching people with those huge numbers of distribution that can grow our business”, you know, “really push it forward”, you know. Smaller brands that just haven’t had access to, for instance, TV, like, it takes a lot of budget to get to TV takes a fair bit of less budget to get to other channels. But TV was one of the most effective, you know, suddenly there’s another thing that’s there and with that power became, you know, this quest for these big numbers, because that’s what we’re used to ratings, numbers, etc. 4.1 million viewers at 6.30. watching the news. What happens in this intervening time is that we start to get into the millions and the billions and things like that in terms of impressions and reach and engagement metrics that seemingly matter and view numbers and things like that.

James:  So this actually becomes again, a big challenge going back to old school media, that one, and the way we understand media for 100 years.  Suddenly, we have more points of measurement available to us. But we also have new terminology and new ways of interpreting the data, but we’re still operating from an old school mindset.

Paul:  And I think the challenge in what you just said there, is that this new set of information came with new definitions that weren’t necessarily controlled by industry norms, controlled by the platforms themselves. And that’s the most worrying element of all of this.

James: And different platforms have different definitions. 

Paul: Yeah, and I think the best …. 

James: And different ways of collecting the data.

Paul:  Yeah, exactly. And then what those numbers then, what’s the true impact of something and, “oh but the engagement” okay, but how hard is it for someone to tap like and what is the passive versus active engagement?, and what is the, you know; when you’re paying for ads, on a platform like, any of them really; Google, Facebook, etc, you get some level of engagement. So you have a 30-sec video, you roughly know in five to 10 seconds slots how much of a video someone watched, which is great. But if you’re doing organic content, things like that, unless you’re the creator yourself, you don’t necessarily know that. Why is that important? well, numbers can falsify the true impact of a topic for instance.

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James:  But the numbers are there 

Paul: They are, but they’re defined really differently. I mean, like getting back to what you said, for instance, a video view, just to give an example, something like YouTube organic, I’m talking about organic numbers here not paid YouTube counts organic views as 30 seconds, that’s one play. Facebook, Instagram, three seconds, plus LinkedIn. Twitter, two seconds. And tik tok, and Instagram reels are zero seconds. So that’s a load. So load counts as a play. Okay, yeah, great. That’s, “that’s organic Paul”, you know, and that’s and that and that, but this is where decisions get made. 

So if you’re looking at the audience, particularly in the popularity of certain channels, because then it starts to get into targeting, okay, so I want to target against key interests, what’s this audience interested in? “Oh, I can see a massive spike in interest in food videos”, for example, it could be anything, any type of genre, you know, like gaming, or even more niche, you know, like shoemaking something crazy. 

“I see a massive spike, i see big i see huge numbers”, whoever’s making the decision about targeting then starts to target those numbers, and you become one dimensional because if you’re basing something off Tik Tok video having 1 billion views or something, how many of those actually watched any part of that piece of content? We don’t know. It’s zero. As soon as that content loads at one play, was that just in a feed that people went past? What’s the quality of that engagement that went through? Do people understand, did they see, are they sharing that because that particular, those pieces of content are popular? Or is it simply just an algorithm tweak or something like that, that’s getting that content in front of more people. And that then creates these really big differences. And it gets back to social proof. And social proof is one of the strongest biases that we have, as humans.

James: Explain that, what is social proof? 

Paul: Social proof is when we see other people doing something and think, okay, and the greatest example, I think that’s given to everybody, maybe who studies any kind of social science and things like that is, is the two restaurant thing, where you’re walking up, you’re hungry, end of the day, you look at two restaurants next to each other, one’s full, it’s got 20 people, you know, maybe it’s a 30 person restaurant, couple of spare tables. The one next to it’s empty.  9.9 people out of 10, go to the busy one because there’s social proof, there must be something wrong with the other one, you know, where it could just be really bad marketing could have better food, better ambiance, better everything. But there’s less people and people are attracted to people, it’s the number one reason why cities become exponentially growing, everything works off social proof. Not just everything, there’s a number of biases that we have, but it’s a huge driving factor.

James:  So the more people we see looking and liking videos, the more likely we are to look at that video.

Paul: The more likely we’re going to get them too, with algorithms and things like that. So it becomes a self-perpetuating thing, and that, there’s something in it for those platforms to really inflate these views, counts as well. So, I think the really interesting thing is an Instagram newsfeed video, the three seconds then it’s a play. Instagram reel, which also appears in that news – the same newsfeed, is on a load and it counts as a play you see these play counts, and you think “oh, there must be like, you know, that must be really important”, when what’s buried in the metadata, that we’ve certainly seen here, a D/A is that we’ve seen a 66% difference between the amount of views from that zero-second load to what Facebook defines as a play, which is three seconds. So 66% inflation on average of those numbers. Well, that doesn’t seem to be very important, you can start to see this content and you start to say, “Oh gee”, this 272k, and if you’re a content creator, yourself, you think I get so many more plays if I go onto reels, right. So you start to create more content for that platform, it then has this flow-on domino effect. And every platform does it in different ways. And I’m you know, I’m calling out reels here, because I think it’s it’s the newest and it’s probably you know, a copycat, or not probably, it is a copycat of Tik Tok, and you start to then understand, okay, so popularity algorithms and things like that really get affected by this stuff. And what we see as consumers then gets affected, but then also as marketers making decisions. And so it becomes this cascading thing, where we’re being sort of almost conned into believing this one singular metric. And that’s why we’re sort of advocating understanding the full breadth of an audience in terms of interests, behavior, and all those sorts of things that I know we’ll touch on a bit later. But I think it’s a really important takeaway from all of this is that measurement gives us one dimension of an audience and a really important dimension because there has to come, we have KPIs, if you’re a musician or something, you want to get a big audience, but the quality of that audience doesn’t get measured by the amount of videos that get played and that’s that’s something that I think a century of marketing measurement has taught us, is to look at those numbers in everyone in this one dimensional way, which is again, you know, reach equal sales always. But, we need to really consider the impact of what we’re looking at, and the drivers behind that. And the fact that the numbers that we see are controlled by entities of which we have no oversight of what goes in behind that number that we get reported back on.

James: So what is the takeaway of this episode? Yes, we have more data with respect to content, but it is important to remember that the quality isn’t always represented by the numbers. More than ever, the data we’re seeing is collected by entities that have their own agendas, think Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, so we need to be thinking about the entire audience profile, not just the one dimension that’s represented by the numbers. 

You can get in touch with me across the socials @thejamescast or [email protected]

Paul:  And get in touch with me both through or otherwise, email me at [email protected]

Thanks for listening