The Portable People Meter: One Man Beats the System

Arbitron, the ratings service that measures radio listening, recently launched — with great fanfare — a new device called the Portable People Meter (PPM). Before PPM, Arbitron used a diary system in which survey participants were supposed to write down the stations they listened to.

The accuracy of this system depended on the accuracy of the subjects’ memories.

Which meant that the ratings, to put it mildly, were not terribly accurate. Many people filled in their diaries well after they had listened to the radio, and didn’t remember all the stations they’d been exposed to. Others filled in what they thought they should have listened to, rather than what they actually had on.

The Portable People, a device that partipants carry, records an encoded signal. If a participant is within range of the signal, the device picks it up. So memory and opinion are no longer factors. This is meant to be a significant improvement, and maybe it is.

But it ain’t perfect, as blogger Jerry Del Colliano reports:

 A friend of one of my readers is a People Meter family. The woman of the house carries her meter with her.

Her husband — well, how can I put this?

…he attaches it to his dog and his dog wanders wherever it wants and some fool at a radio station thinks the man of the house likes Oldies 101 when it is actually the dog. And an even bigger fool — advertisers — are accepting hearing (as in somewhere near an encoded signal) instead of listening (as in fans of the radio station).

While I’ll admit the Doggie Meter is likely an aberration, it dramatically demonstrates that man’s best friend is not a People Meter unless it is understood for both its advantages and limitations.

The lesson here? Raw numbers by themselves won’t tell you where, or how, to advertise. If your message was bringing in customers before the diary-to-meter switch, it will still bring in customers, even if the station you’re using has dropped in the rankings. And if you didn’t belong on a station before, you don’t suddenly belong on it now that it’s jumped nine spots on a ranker.

Listener behavior hasn’t changed — only the way it’s measured. And the measuring device just might be on a dog.


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One thought on “The Portable People Meter: One Man Beats the System

  1. Jerry’s story about the PPM device on a dog is apocryphal – it’s been running around out there for years. It first was brought up years ago during the first US PPM test market period in Philadelphia as a possible scenario.

    His point – and yours – are still quite important, though. Audience measurement is not perfect and the real test is whether a campaign is successful by the measure that counts – did it produce measurable results for the advertiser.