A Qualitative World

When I think about quantitative analytics, I think of The Matrix. In The Matrix, the world most people experience is purely a computer construct, one of ones and zeros spelling out a universe in binary. Keanu Reeves’ Neo is offered the choice between the red pill and the blue pill, the choice of living in an all digital reality where everything can be analyzed and shaped or an analog world where things can vary. In that first movie, everything is changed by his awakening, perhaps even the universe itself.

In quantitative analysis, it’s all about the numbers. Sampling size is key, but after a population reaches a certain size, there’s little chance of having the result change, so why bother asking, right? The first time an alarm was raised for me was as an undergrad sitting in a media class learning about the Neilsen ratings system. While there were more than 300 million people in the United States, they sampled a few hundred. Those few hundred told networks how much money they could make and what programming to pursue. Why? Because to sample any more than that would be a waste.

Skip to the mid-2000s. Neilsen switches to people meters from diaries and suddenly shows and networks watched by city dwellers and minorities suddenly drops overnight. The diary system had TV viewers write what they watched in increments over an hour. They were supposed to note if they changed the channel, when and if they stayed with the new program. People meters automated that data collecting. They were initially introduced in New York City and from the first day, programming featuring minorities plummeted in the ratings. It was serious enough that lawmakers took notice.

How could that happen? New York City has eight million people. They were replacing 400 diaries. Did they give people meters to the same people who had diaries? Where the people being replaced competent? How did they choose new families? As a purely “opt in” system, did they enroll people via letter or telephone call? If it was telephone, was it landline or mobile? To whittle 300 million people to a few hundred, you have to cut a lot of corners and make many broad generalizations.

Today advertisers and networks are learning much more about how people relate to television. They know we engage separate media simultaneously. We post on Facebook and Twitter while we watch. That alone has moved networks out of a purely quantitative understanding of their programming. Now you can see the next day how your program reached its audience by a simple hashtag search. This is a good thing. I do agree that individual focus groups in many different areas is an expensive proposition, perhaps prohibitively expensive even. But these new technologies help us understand much more.

Other technologies are coming. Would a modern teenager download an app for their Google Glass that measured how long they looked at the outfits worn my actors on the latest MTV program? Would you do the same for shows you watch? What if you were paid an Amazon gift card for your efforts? The improved data would be incredibly valuable. The payoff to you would be tiny depending on how much data you were willing to share.

I think we are on the cusp of things changing. Facebook has been losing young people lately. I could see them revitalized if they shared their ad revenue with the people whose friends they are ad bombing. If you were 16 with hundreds of friends, would you take $50 a month for giving Facebook extra access to your followers? I think the first company to offer this will not only gain access to a treasure trove of marketing data, but create a new, fairer, more qualitative world for advertising.