FEATURE22 September 2010

Dialling in to Ipsos MediaCT’s radio audience measurement trials

Features News UK

Ipsos MediaCT has embarked on a major trial of its mobile phone-based radio audience measurement system. Research caught up with Jim Ford to find out how the project is going and whether a showdown with Arbitron’s PPM system is on the cards.

Developed in conjunction with technology firm Intrasonics, the MediaCell technology is an application that is downloaded to third-generation ( 3G) mobile phones using the handset’s microphone to capture radio broadcasts.

So-called “false echoes” embedded in radio content are used to identify which station a respondent is listening to. Ipsos is currently trialling the system with a sample of 20 respondents, which it will raise to 50 by next month and 200 by the end of the year. Panellists are recruited through the firm’s existing research panels and so far London radio stations Smooth, Absolute and TalkSport have encoded their content for the trial.

The technology was developed with the UK’s Rajar radio audience measurement contract in mind, which Ipsos currently operates using a paper diary method. Ford, though, firmly believes that electronic measurement is the way forward for radio.

“You can keep track of the methods by which people are listening – either by choice, in the background, over the internet or through podcasts as well as the whole area of time-shifted listening,” he said. “You could say it puts it on a par with TV measurement by giving minute-by-minute ratings.”

Looking at the findings so far, Ford said that there is a difference between the results gathered through mobile phones and the more traditional diaries. He said: “The initial findings show shorter listening but higher reach [a wider range of stations], so there are trade offs to be had.”

The other main benefit, Ford said, is the minimal impact it has on respondents: “All they have to do to take part is say ‘Yes’ and the only impact at the moment is that we ask them to charge their phone once a day, it’s a completely passive approach.”

Beyond measuring radio listening, MediaCell can also report the phone’s location at certain times of day, whether it is in use and whether or not it is actually being touched by the owner. Ford said this extra data is vital in defining “what being exposed to media” actually is. For example, if somebody is talking on their mobile and the MediaCell app picks up a radio playing at the same time are they really being exposed to it, or is their full attention on their conversation?

While the firm continues to “strength test” the technology there are inevitable hurdles to negotiate, and high on the list is one relating to one of the most popular handsets around – the iPhone.

Ford said: “At the moment we haven’t got an Apple solution. There are hopes that with the new Apple operating system it’ll be possible, but it is not high on Steve Jobs’ list of things to do. We recognise that we do have to develop an iPhone solution. Is it number one on our list of priorities? No. Number two maybe…”

For the time being, then, it may prove tricky to recruit iPhone owners, but Ford sees little difficulties otherwise in getting people signed up. Where Arbitron in the US has encountered problems encouraging certain demographic groups to agree to carry the company’s pager-sized Portable People Meter (PPM) device, Ford points out that it is second nature for people to carry mobile phones. Those without MediaCell compatible devices, meanwhile, may well be swayed to take part by the promise of a new handset.

Whenever radio measurement is discussed, Arbitron inevitably comes up given its dominance in the US market. The company has its fair share of critics, though, and several years back a consortium of major broadcasters, pledged funding for trials of MediaCell as a potential alternative to Arbitron’s PPM. The tests ultimately went nowhere – in fact, many saw them simply as a tactic for negotiating better rates with Arbitron – but we wonder whether Ipsos is preparing to take another run at the US market.

Ford said: “The opportunities are there to go to North America. Obviously the US market is the biggest media market in the world and saying that we’re not planning to go there is wrong – it’s high on our list of priorities to do. But we have to support our existing contracts and the whole point of the London trial is to demonstrate it is working properly.”