Server log data can't always tell the whole story, says Arbitron

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Issue Date: 
Dec 20 2011 - 11:35am

From Issue:

Yesterday afternoon Arbitron issued a statement advising against comparing its own survey-based PPM audience estimates to those of "Internet music services" based on server logs.

"Arbitron urges those reviewing audience estimates from Internet music services not to make direct comparisons to Arbitron audience estimates in any market," they wrote.

The paper from Arbitron came just hours after industry news sources like Inside Radio (as well as this publication here) quoted broadcast radio executives expressing trepidation over Arbitron's own upcoming Total Audience Measurement service -- a new ratings service designed to measure listening across AM/FM, satellite, and Internet platforms (latest here). It also came on the same day Arbitron competitor Triton Digital announced its new program for local market ratings for webcasters (here). 

But Arbitron's afternoon missive seems to actually be in response to recent PR from leading webcaster Pandora and market research firm Edison Research. In summer Edison began announcing results of studies it said indicated that Pandora had become a significant competitor to traditional radio in major U.S. radio markets. Last week Edison released its latest data (here), indicating not only that Pandora now had at least a 1.0 AQH rating 18-34 in nearly all the top ten markets, but for the first time showing cume ratings. As Tom Taylor writes in Radio-Info, "suddenly, the metrics are starting to look very 'radio'-like." [Indeed, Arbitron insists, "Highlighting the differences between estimates, even those with the same names and descriptors, is part of our obligation to the industries we serve."]

In its statement, titled Thoughts on Comparing Audience Estimates (it's a .pdf file, here), Arbitron (1) insists that audience estimates of broadcast listening (many people listening to the same thing at the same time) can't reliably be put side-by-side with estimates of webcast listening, where each listener gets his own stream.

Arbitron also advises (2) against using webcast audience estimates that don't include explicitly-cited limitations and "detailed description of methodology" for making their estimates. Next, (3) with "many Internet music channels... there appears to be no way of confirming if anyone is on the other end throughout the session." And, (4) those Internet services can't always verify whether "self-reported registration data are reliable and that users do not have multiple accounts."

Read a more point-by-point summary of the Arbitron paper from Tom Taylor in Radio-Info here

Consultant Mark Ramsey defends the veracity of server-side measurement and takes apart Arbitron's arguments here.

"Perhaps we should be bringing Arbitron up to date," he wrote, "rather than blowing dust onto metrics which are based on every user with 100% accuracy, not a smattering of sampled users with sketchy accuracy."

RAIN Analysis: The timing of this statement from Arbitron is pretty awkward, it would seem. Arbitron needs to walk a pretty fine line here. On the one hand, it's attempting to discredit audience estimates based on the data culled from servers about "when" and "how much" those servers send out into the ether. Yet, it needs to quell a brewing client rebellion among broadcasters over its own Total Audience Measurement service -- a service that will reportedly estimate listening based partially on server log data. Stay tuned. -- PM

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