Fusion confusion

Confusion and concern continue to swirl around the Unity Project, and a number of questions still remain unanswered. Top of mind: will data integration increase the industry's already high research costs? Throw in the term 'data fusion' and that confounds the situation even more.

Confusion and concern continue to swirl around the Unity Project, and a number of questions still remain unanswered. Top of mind: will data integration increase the industry’s already high research costs? Throw in the term ‘data fusion’ and that confounds the situation even more.

Essentially, the goal of the Unity Project is to eliminate data duplication and streamline databases. What it will mean to the cost of research will not likely be known until some time in the new year, but the blueprint for data integration is in place, and as the project gets closer to being able to answer more of these questions, committee head Hugh Dow has been working overtime to provide some answers.

Dow, president of M2 Universal, has almost lost track of the number of presentations he’s given since the Canadian Media Directors’ Council Unity Project was just a glimmer in his eye about 18 months ago. All the same, as chairman of the Data Consolidation Committee, he isn’t surprised that there are some in the industry who still don’t understand the CMDC’s vision.

‘I probably do three to four presentations a week on this, more than 120 presentations, and it never seems enough. There’s always somebody who doesn’t understand it and unfortunately they don’t seem to pass the information down through their organizations,’ says Dow.

The CMDC began the Unity Project initiative as a way to eliminate the duplication of product and media usage and lifestyle data. Today the project is looking at fusing together local product and media usage databases with a national database administered by PMB. This fusion will form a central databank that will be used by the entire industry in conjunction with their individual choice of audience database. The committee is expected to name a company this week to conduct the fusion tests.

The CMDC’s hope is that the local data will be gathered by a consortium of media organizations with local expertise, such as NADbank, RTS (BBM’s radio return to sample study), and ComBase, the new Canadian Community Newspaper Association (CCNA) database.

‘At this point in time they’re both doing their own thing through NADbank and RTS,’ says Dow, ‘but we think it makes sense for them to join forces and hopefully, together with the CCNA, conduct a local product/media usage survey.’

Contrary to what many believe, all Canadian audience and product/media usage studies are not going to be fused into one giant database. It is only the local and national product/media data that will be fused.

Users of the individual audience research studies will still be able to access that data seamlessly through the audience research services they already subscribe to. What will be different is that some single-source databases, such as NADbank’s readership and product usage data, will be pre-empted by integrated data.

It sounds simple but there is one important factor: When the project is complete, rather than subscribing only to NADbank, for example, users wanting product usage data linked with readership data would have to subscribe to both NADbank and the local or national product/media databases separately.

The cost of this new system is a major concern for media buyers and suppliers alike, who have been bemoaning the exorbitant price of research for the past several years.

Marilyn Sherman, EVP/media director at Toronto’s Echo Advertising, has been asking about cost at CMDC meetings, and still isn’t clear how it’s going to be charged out. She is also concerned that she may have to pay for new studies that she doesn’t currently subscribe to.

‘I don’t know enough about how it’s funded or how it’s going to work,’ she says. ‘My best case is that the sellers are going to fund it, and that it’s not going to cost the buyers anything. We’re paying enough for Nielsen, BBM, PMB, and NADbank already. Something has to give. My question is, can you have access to this data if you don’t already subscribe to one or more of the tools?’

Getting a definitive answer on cost won’t happen until the technology and methodology of fusing the databases is tested and proven.

Steve Ferley, president of PMB, says cost to subscribers is not something that’s been discussed, since there’s a long way to go before the project reaches that point.

‘What we’ve said is that the most important thing is to see whether the testing of the techniques work. Let us first of all have a look at that. Whether it will save money, whether it will be zero sum, or whether it will cost more money is trading ignorances at this stage.’

Competition from Nielsen?

Nielsen Media Research fully supports the Unity Project’s attempt to reduce overlap and provide better data by integrating existing databases, but at the same time, it’s moving ahead on new products that could rival Unity’s data. In particular, one product aims to provide the same kind of data an integrated database could deliver – but from a single-source panel.

‘Our single-source product has really been in development – and I hate to say it – for about eight years,’ says Mike Leahy, NMR president. ‘I remember meeting with the CMDC eight years ago talking about if we could do it, but the big fear back then was the impact on the panel.’

He adds that the combined product, lifestyle and media usage survey was conducted with the same panel used for the people meters. It is ‘basically finished,’ he says, and boasts a 93% response rate.

‘There is no impact on the panel in terms of willingness to participate because of this added – and I use the term loosely – burden,’ he stresses. ‘And it’s a single-source product – no fusion, no linking, no multi-basing.’

Weak links in the Unity chain

Questions over control and methodology simmer beneath the surface

The name of the Unity Project conveys the picture of ‘one big happy family,’ but there’s actually some real dissension in the industry ranks.

Complaints from media owners about the CMDC’s tight grip on the project, questions about the quality of integrated data and quibbles over methodology are just some of the issues roiling beneath the surface.

For instance, when it comes to data collection methodology, Anne Ruta, executive director of Toronto’s NADbank, says cobbling all the databases together in a meaningful way is no easy task.

‘If I ask radio listening hours in our study and BBM publishes what their radio listening hours are, they’re different,’ she points out. ‘So how can you mash all those together? We have to find a way we can harmonize our data collection methodologies so what we get at the end is more comparable.’

Meanwhile, research purists are saying that combining research collected using many different methodologies goes against their principles.

The Canadian Advertising Research Foundation (CARF), for one, examined the practical issues of the project and released its data integration committee report this past June. There were concerns about the project, and CARF pointed out that many of those issues centred around the possible impact on market-level data and service, saying the new system must be able to cope with variations at the local market level to allow for the needs of the local media and economics.

The CARF paper also cautioned that market definitions vary from one measurement service to another, as do sampling methodologies, and that the differences in sampling will be most apparent and troublesome in the databases being fused (i.e. the local and national product data).

In its conclusion, the CARF committee stated that there was considerable enthusiasm for the Unity Project, but that there are ‘some reservations about the ability of any solution to satisfy all parties.’

Media suppliers are also feeling that they don’t have any control over the data integrations process because with the CMDC continuing to make all the decisions, the final outcome may not be the best option for media suppliers.

The Unity initiative was spearheaded by the CMDC a year and a half ago. That group continues to make all of the decisions and has refused funding from other segments of the industry. Those from the media supplier and audience measurement sides of the business sit on the committee in advisory capacities only.

Daphne Hubble, director of marketing research for CHUM Television, says broadcasters have offered to help foot the cost but the CMDC has preferred to keep control.

‘In its infancy, much of the decision-making was done by the CMDC and it continues to be done by the CMDC,’ she says. ‘That’s maybe where there is big frustration on the part of broadcasters and other media, in that it continues to be a CMDC initiative pretty strongly.’

But Hubble says that even with controversy and imperfections, the Unity Project is probably the best solution for the industry.

‘Of all the initiatives that have come up in the last few years, there’s nothing that is really the answer. We have single-source product usage with the Nielsen Meter Panel but it’s limited in sample size. The BBM Extended Diary has huge downsides in the methodology itself, because of poor response rates and because it’s not where most of the research dollars are spent – most dollars are spent on meter data.’

The final concern, voiced by some research organizations, is that because CMDC has been working very closely with PMB – which will also collect national product usage data for the project – there is a feeling that PMB may be positioning itself to take over local data collection as well.

Right now, however, the CMDC blueprint still calls for the organizations most closely aligned with local markets – newspapers, community newspapers, and radio – to form a coalition to conduct the local surveys for the industry database. That is also the wish of NADbank, but nothing has been resolved as yet.