Feldman and his cofounder, Paul Sutter, the company’s president, do not approach the problem of audience measurement as veterans of media. Feldman, a computer scientist, was the cofounder of Searchspace (now Fortent), which developed software to help financial-services firms detect money laundering and the financing of terrorists. Sutter founded the network optimization company Orbital Data (later acquired by Citrix) as an expert on high-performance computer architectures, a background that has proved useful as Quantcast processes the thousands of terabytes of data it has collected.
When the founders first conceived the company, Sutter says, “we just asked the most simple, kindergarten questions, and it soon became clear that the language that media buyers and planners were speaking was nothing like the language of Internet advertising, with its cost-per-clicks and so forth. Media planners liked to talk about audiences, demographics, and lifestyles. So the answer was quantcasting, which means just reaching the people you want to reach.” Today, the company claims that 85,000 broadly defined “publishers” have elected to be directly measured by Quantcast, including the Disney-ABC Television Group, NBC, CBS, MTV Networks, Fox, BusinessWeek, and Time’s SI.com and CNNMoney.com.
Quantcast is not the only company with the bright idea of replacing panel-based audience measurement. Last June, Google announced a new service, Google Ad Planner, which uses the company’s detailed knowledge of Web traffic to provide interested parties with a more accurate understanding of Web audiences. Wayne Lin, Ad Planner’s product manager, demonstrated the service to me when I visited the GooglePlex in Mountain View, CA. Because Google owns DoubleClick, one of the two dominant systems for serving ads, Web audience data can be combined with the ad-serving system so that media planners know which sites are best suited for which ads. The combination should be powerfully attractive for media planners and marketers, says Lin.
How do media planners regard the two new audience measurement services? “We use Quantcast now at Mediasmith, but they are not complete enough yet to be a total solution,” says David Smith, who briefly advised the startup during its formation. The difficulty, according to Smith, is that the site’s audience information won’t be really useful–let alone a new currency–until more publishers elect to be quantified. Jim Spanfeller agrees. “They’re to be commended for working hard on the problem,” he says. “But it’s very much a chicken-and-egg thing.”
As for Google’s Ad Planner, Smith says, “the agencies will never stand for it.” Smith, like everyone I spoke to, argued that media planners will resist Google’s audience information because no one wants one company to be so dominant in online advertising: were Ad Planner to be widely adopted, Google would be selling keywords through its search advertising network, AdWords; selling banner advertising through its display advertising network, AdSense; serving those ads through DoubleClick; and advising media planners on where to spend their advertising dollars.
Ad Planner also lacks a number of important features that an advertising agency might expect from an audience measurement service. According to Smith, it offers neither very detailed demographics nor a full explanation of its methodologies. Patrick Viera, TechnologyReview.com’s own digital strategist and West Coast advertising manager, said disdainfully when I asked his opinion: “Yeah, I looked at it. It doesn’t do anything you want. It’s just a tool for selling AdSense.”
Still, says Smith, there’s demand for something new. “Publishers have to use third-party measurements, but third parties [such as ComScore and Nielsen] may underestimate audiences, and the truth is probably somewhere in between. That’s why new companies like Quantcast have a chance.”