Get Prepared For The New Era Of Audio Accountability

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Jonathan Eccles, director of product management at Pandora.

On Jan. 18, the Media Rating Council released a new standard for Digital Audio Measurement, and if your business is even remotely involved in audio content or advertising, you will be affected.

In the past five years, trade groups and new standards have pushed digital advertising toward trust and accountability, and thus higher-quality inventory and better ad experiences. The systems that now provide this accountability have sometimes been marked by operational chaos and growing pains, but as audio measurement matures, it should be held to a similar level of transparency to showcase the premium quality of the medium.

At a high level, the MRC proposal applies to any software-based audio playback source and attempts to codify standards for a few key areas, including reporting categories, instrumentation methodologies and, most importantly, the beginning of an audibility standard.

Reporting Categories For Audio Content And Ad Consumption

If terms like average quarter-hour (AQH) and five-minute crediting mean anything to you, this part of the guidelines is a must-read.

The MRC proposes different categories for different types of audio streaming. For example, audio streams in which everybody receives the same ads at the same time (akin to the broadcast radio user experience) are treated differently than streams in which ad interruptions and overall ad load are personalized and may differ notably across every user and audience type.

If you’re worried this new categorization could make buying audio ads more confusing, the MRC luckily also proposes a way for audio buy-side systems that revolve around AQH to keep their user interfaces clean, adjusting data points behind the scenes to allow multiple categories of measurement to sit side by side. As part of this adjustment to make measurement more reliable and accurate, the guidelines also acknowledge and attempt to correct the inflationary nature of five-minute crediting.

While these guidelines focus on digital audio, I believe that moves like this will have a longer-term downstream impact in holding broadcast measurement equally accountable and pushing broadcasters to find better methodologies beyond the outdated world of diaries and five-minute crediting.

Instrumentation Via Clients And Servers

The guidelines also outline various instrumentation methodologies, including client-side and server-side measurement.

In client-side measurement, code on the consumer’s device sends data about specific events, such as the moment when an ad begins to play and how long users consumed content. In server-side measurement, also known as log file analysis, data comes from servers that are separate from the consumer’s device.

In some cases, this server data might just be a direct representation of events accurately sent from that device. In other cases, it may only be a record of data sent from that server to the device for playback, in which case exact device-based events are usually inferred as opposed to certain.

While the guidelines make it clear that client-side measurement is generally preferred and in some cases required, it also thoughtfully describes some cases in which log file analysis may be acceptable.

The nuances of acceptable server-side measurement will be vital to understand in 2018 and beyond, given the growing variety of walled-garden devices and platforms that stream music without providing full playback control and event transparency to publishers. In these contexts, such as voice interaction platforms and other non-mobile consumer electronics devices, content monetization heavily depends on the acceptability of log file analysis. Similar complexities and nuances will likely also occur in the podcast world, where media consumption often happens offline via downloaded episodes.

The Beginning Of Audibility Standards

Viewability has been one of the most important topics in ad tech for a few years, and it’s shaping up to be just as vital of a subject in 2018. So it makes a lot of sense that, for the audio advertising world to evolve, we absolutely must do so with a set of rules for audibility.

Viewability attempts to define the threshold for an ad to have the opportunity to be seen by a human, and audibility can be thought of quite similarly as the opportunity for a message to be heard by a human. And, since there’s a lot of scientific research showing that humans can “see” and “hear” events even within tiny thresholds far less than one second without actually retaining much information, I would go a step further and propose that both viewability and audibility be defined as the opportunity for a human to consciously perceive an aural or visual message.

The MRC’s v1.0 proposal outlines basic ad fraud filtering, non-muted playback and two continuous seconds of consumption as the initial rules for audibility. However, the guidelines also smartly call out the need for further research across the industry; who knows if two seconds is too low or too high of a threshold? We as an industry need to research how a person perceives a message with their ears.

I believe this last bit is one of the most impactful pieces of these new audio standards. This is a call to arms to join together, share existing data and execute peer-reviewed empirical studies to evolve our understanding of what happens when a human hears an audio advertisement. In early conversations, I’m already seeing partners and competitors alike who are excited to join and share insights to find a better way to measure and transact for audio ads.

So What Now?

The MRC’s new Digital Audio Measurement Standards will help create an audio ad ecosystem with better trust and transparency, while also making it easier for buyers to understand and compare value across various audio content platforms.

For that evolution to happen, we’ll all need to put in some work. To start, everyone needs to understand the content of this v1.0 doc. We’ll need to be thoughtful and collaborative about how to start executing against these guidelines at scale, too. We have hopefully learned from the pain of viewability execution, so with audibility, we as an industry know not to rush a non-scalable solution, and we can also leverage existing frameworks and groups, such as the IAB Open Measurement Working Group.

This is also a call to arms for audio as a medium, and not just digital audio. Terrestrial radio needs to evolve just like its digital partners, and I hope that these guidelines push that space toward the same trust and accountability being sought in the digital world.

In the end, if these guidelines create a more efficient audio advertising economy, then the audio products with the best listener experiences will be rewarded for driving the best measurable attention for marketers. In turn, this will incentivize the sell side and buy side alike to optimize toward great user experiences, and consumers will win. But for any of this to take place, everyone in the industry needs to come together, and we need to do it now.

Follow Pandora (@pandoramusic) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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