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The newsonomics of targeted TV

Television is about to be disrupted by the same fragmentation print has faced: the ability to better target advertising, but only if you have the right data.
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We watch a conveyor belt of passing numbers, moving faster and faster. A few stand out and capture our imagination.

The passing of print advertising in the U.S. has caught everyone’s attention in the last month (though we saw that passage in the U.K. two years ago). The gap between print ad loss and digital ad gain — 7-or-8 to 1, depending on your source — has been another attention grabber. Or this amazement, from mid-2011: While news sites struggle to average more than 10 or 15 minutes of usage a month, Facebook counts six hours a month, globally. Six hours. That’s engagement.

So we’ve seen The Guardian, The Washington Post, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal embed their flags in the fertile Facebook soil, planting new colonies and seeing a heavy immigration of digital natives (“With WSJ Social, the Wall Street Journal is Rethinking Distribution”).

Six hours is impressive, and it’s a number digital ad pioneer Dave Morgan now uses a lot. The still boyish Internet genius has graduated from the web, migrating back in time to an older medium with which we all grew up. Hint: It’s not newspapers.

“Six hours a month is good,” he says in his New York startup office. “Six hours a day is better.” Only one medium has that kind of pull: TV.

Indeed, time spent on TV clocks at almost 33 hours a week, according to the latest Nielsen study — maybe not consistently six hours a day (though it may hit that on some days), but almost five on average.

That’s why TV advertising is still way ahead of digital, pulling in $60.7 billion in 2011 and estimated to grow to $72 billion by 2016. In addition, time spent watching TV matches the ad dollars spent on the medium: TV takes up 42.5 percent of people’s media time and collects 42.2 percent of national ad spending. Newspapers and magazines still have more print losses to which to look forward, given their time-spent-vs.-ad-spend mismatches (“The newsonomics of crossover”).

It’s enough to force us to revive that old Clintonian 1992 campaign strategy, hitting the pause button and thinking about the newsonomics of TV, stupid.

While Morgan, the entrepreneur behind digital ad companies Real Media (sold as part of 24/7 Real Media to WPP for $649 million in 2007) and Tacoda (sold to AOL for $275 million in 2007), may be focused on that glowing living-room flatscreen, that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his roots: targeting audiences with more effective ads.

That’s what his 37-person, NYC-based start-up Simulmedia does: Bringing contemporary ad targeting to an industry more used to selling share and ratings points. To do that, it is assembling “the largest database of TV watching.” That’s a tall order, with 500,000 different national ads out there at any point.

The Simulmedia story begins with data — lots of it — and will end there too. How much? An almost terrifying number: Simulmedia takes in “150 million events per day” and retains the data indefinitely. It now houses 50 terabytes of data.

Simulmedia can capture what channels are being watched, when channels are being changed, and “when people change channels in the middle of ads.” It gets aggregated customer data from seven of the eight major cable systems operators (CSOs) in the U.S, with the exception of Time Warner.

For a news industry getting increasingly focused on digital video (thank you, new iPad, with dazzling display and 4G speeds), the Simulmedia story is one to watch. Its targeting potentially makes TV — whatever we mean when we use that word five years from now — an even stronger advertising competitor. Further, it should act as a reminder to publishers that selling broad “impressions” without better and better targeting may net them less and less.

Morgan gets his data from set-top boxes. He adds to that with data from more traditional TV sources, including Nielsen, Kantar Media, Tribune Media Services, MRI, and Rentrak. All that data does two things for Simulmedia: It rounds out Simulmedia’s own rough edges and it provides legitimacy as the startup goes about its business.

That business is selling ads. By using its trove of data, it is working some new TV territory. Simulmedia is aggregating smaller audiences found on a host of cable channels. Add up a lot of little audiences, about whom you know more than other people, and you can, Morgan argues, improve the ad yield for both the CSOs and individual channels. Morgan is taking advantage of what he sees (and writes about for Media Post and Ad Age): fragmentation.

While older readers may remember three big TV networks, today’s coming-of-age generation is used to hundreds of cable channels. (Low-cost-to-produce real estate porn alone seems to occupy a quarter of them some evenings.)

Simulmedia’s business is nascent, and doesn’t release revenue numbers. Simulmedia has run more than 150 campaigns, and claims that those campaigns “have successfully boosted target audience reach by at least 75 percent over advertisers’ standard or base campaigns.”

How does it improve that effectiveness? “If I know every ad that runs for Purina Dog Chow by Zip code, cause and effect can be measured,” says Morgan. Combine watching with Zip-oriented purchase info, and you’ve got a more competitive ad product. That ad product, Morgan says, is aimed at maximizing prices of what has been traditionally low-end advertising; think late-night Ginsu Knife spots. If you can prove it’ll sell more dog food, you can triple or more the price of the ad spot.

Increasingly, put all the data together, and the business can become more predictive, finding “persons of interest” for merchants selling products or TV networks touting new shows, for instance. And those set-top boxes are only getting smarter, becoming more digital, more computer-like, and more able to report more and more information about viewing habits.

How does “TV” as we’ve known it fit into our new world of at least five screens: desktop/laptops, smartphones, tablets, connected TVs, and connected cars? The recent Nielsen study provides a good moving snapshot of our changing behavior: Read the full report, and you’ll see that yes, there is some cable-cutting and lots more viewing on non-TV traditional screens. But traditional TV viewing still dominates streaming watching about 50-1, measured by time.

That’s a powerful number, which shows us why TV’s digital disruption has been far more limited than print’s.

It also shows us why a little company called Google is laying down fiber in Kansas City and apparently getting into the TV subscription business. Of course, Google with its own ad targeting machine has poked around the edges of TV in several different ways, including Google TV. It has now reenergized its several-years-old TV ad selling business.

Will Simulmedia succeed, and if so, in how big a way? No one’s got a clue at this point. What is clear that is that the biggest ad medium across the western world is facing the kind of change its print brethren have seen: the impact of better targeting for commercial messages. As “TV” moves to more on-demand and time-shifted, such technologies as Simulmedia only make more sense.

Yes, Times Square and Shibuya Crossing electronic billboards will endure — marvelously untargeted, humongous and garish. Each day, though, we move into a more targetable commercial landscape, fed by Google Analytics and Facebook Analytics and Omniture and many others. We move into a world of interactivity that we didn’t expect: TV watching us just as much as we watch it.

                                   
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