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Digital media measurement is becoming a standards-free zone. Should we worry?

I listened with interest to Richard Saul Wurman, the gadfly of information architecture, at the The Economist‘s Ideas Economy: Information 2012 conference. The creator of TED Talks was discussing the need for standards in how we measure and map our world – in order to better understand it. Without a “common language” we are unable to make sense of things readily. The interview struck a chord. Amid all the excitement about tablet technology, we are in danger of missing a fundamental requirement – that of measuring the success (or otherwise) of our endeavours in a systematic and standardised way.

Digital publishing is enjoying a boom. Flick through recent blog posts on this site, and many will focus in on tablet technology – what this means for the reader (leaning back), the advertiser and the media owner. The merits of a “digital first” policy must surely have featured on every media organisation’s boardroom agenda. Everyone wants to join the game but how does the industry as a whole get a sense of the performance of this new channel?

There are many lessons about speed, innovation and customer focus that traditional media can learn from digital, but in one area the traditionalists are far better: giving clear comparable transparent data to agencies and advertisers to help them with their advertising decisions. Print publishing has established standards to allow media owners to showcase performance covering the various types of business model – from “freemium” to paid subscriptions. The industry comes together on a regular basis to agree to these standards and evolve them over time. As Wurman articulates, standards are vital when you are in the business of measuring anything. Standards decide what counts; they set the benchmark and enable meaningful comparisons and conclusions to be drawn.

Online should be the most accountable channel, but all too often it falls short. True, there are a vast number of variables to be considered as consumers take advantage of the diversity of digital: multiple devices –  laptop, mobile or tablet,  multiple locations – work, home or on the move, multiple access routes – via social media, search engines or subscription. These can seem almost endless.

But as fragmentation grows, and the number of channels and platforms proliferates, measurement standards must follow. It’s up to the industry to come together to define what counts. No one is saying this should be to the exclusion of all other data but a standardised baseline will help the industry make sense of this channel. This means bringing those involved to the table to agree the industry standards – buyers, sellers, media owners and infrastructure providers, but also widespread adoption of those industry benchmark metrics.

In the short term, digital media is enjoying rapid growth. And in a period of growth it’s easy to overlook a standardised approach to measurement – this will become a bigger question if and when the cracks appear. No industry wants to be accused of being opaque when it comes to proving performance, but there is a real and present risk that digital media measurement is just that. This is what buyers want and the industry should provide it – or else we will all be cast adrift in a heaving sea with no map or compass.

As to what we measure…that’s for another time, perhaps.