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What Makes a No. 1 Record, and Why it Matters to MR

one-706897_1280Traditional ways of measuring can die hard – a prime example being the United States’ ongoing rejection of the metric system.

Rationalists point to how much easier it is to use a system that quantifies everything in 10s, 100s and 1000s. But that – and the fact that virtually every other country uses the metric system – isn’t about to make Americans give up our 12-inch foot, our 5,280-foot mile, our 16-ounce pound and our 128-ounce gallon.

But even in the proudly exceptional U.S.A., change will happen when sheer necessity dictates that it must – including changes in how we measure things.

Now it’s time to take the measure of the traditional online market research tracking study. Data from this mainstay is becoming suspect. Consumers have switched en masse from laptops and desktops to smartphones as their primary information/communications device. Crucial, smartphone-centric swaths of the population have gone off online research’s radar – including Millennials, minorities, and parents of young children. Without them, trackers can’t take a valid measure of what consumers think, feel, want and do. The public’s transformative embrace of smartphones has brought us to that moment of sheer necessity, when how we measure things must change.

But what does that mean for tracking studies? They compile insights over time, making it important that historical findings remain compatible with new data. Is there a way to save trackers from a wrenching disruption in which a necessary shift from online to mobile breaks that important chain of continuity? We think there is – through calibrations that align the new mobile data with the most useful online data sets.

There’s an interesting parallel between MR’s tracking-study challenges and the challenges the music industry faces as it tries to measure which songs or albums are the biggest hits. A changing technological landscape that also includes the smartphone has revolutionized how fans consume music – and that has meant a scramble to find better ways to measure music consumption.

A recent Los Angeles Times article examines how the music industry is trying to recalibrate what constitutes a No. 1 hit. Given how segmented today’s music delivery systems have become, how can anyone tell which hit song should be No. 1? Fans and artists want to know who’s on top, and record labels, talent managers and music trade publications need to know.

Before the digital age, it wasn’t complicated. Records were sold in stores and played on the radio – so sales figures phoned in from the stores and playlists provided by the radio stations determined who was No. 1. The system was legendarily vulnerable to being gamed by paying off whoever was doing the reporting, but it was the best the industry could do.

The advent of the bar code brought a big change for the better. Cash register scanners recorded every sale. New clarity came to declaring who was No. 1.

But over the past 15 to 20 years, everything has changed. Now there are myriad ways for music to reach the public ear. With audio streaming, YouTube videos and downloads now dominating how fans access music, how do you measure just how well a song or an album is selling? With so much complexity and so many variables, can you really be sure who’s No. 1?

The music business is trying. “Each component…is measured and weighted using industry-approved equations,” reports music writer Randall Roberts, but there’s still no easy way to determine who’s No. 1. “The problem…is quantifying success in an era with dozens of distribution platforms.”

Getting the numbers from market research tracking studies to again reflect observed reality isn’t quite so complicated – if researchers are willing to make some necessary adjustments.

It’s understandable that some researchers would regard shifting from online trackers to mobile trackers as an unthinkable disruption akin to America going metric. With tracking studies, continuity matters. Data needs to be consistent and comparable over time. Business decision-makers need to be able to look at past data and recent results to gain insights about trends. Throwing out the old data to bring in the new becomes extremely unpalatable.

The solution is not to jettison online tracking studies entirely, but to integrate them with new mobile components. If online responses for certain demographics remain reliable, then by all means keep them – but augment them with mobile data from the groups that no longer are accessible to online studies. By analyzing and calibrating the data from each approach, trackers can establish new baselines that reconcile the historic online data with the new mobile results.

“Each component…is measured and weighted,” is the key phrase in the L.A. Times article about the challenge of determining whose record is No. 1. Market research can take that as a cue, measuring and weighting online and mobile data to put tracking studies back on a reliable course while hardly missing a beat.

MFour is ready to help with the necessary mobile survey technology and panel – and with the calculations that will calibrate and integrate new mobile data with a tracker’s historic and ongoing online components. As the Beatles sang in an indisputable No. 1 hit, “We Can Work it Out.”