The long, laborious task of testing a next generation of Portable People Meters will continue through the New Year as Nielsen puts prototypes of the stylish new wearable devices through their paces. If all goes as planned, the gizmos, which resemble a Fitbit or Apple Watch, would measure both radio and TV consumption while significantly increasing radio sample sizes that have long been decried by clients as too small.

But before electronic measurement gets to the Promised Land, a battery of tests must be completed. The physical design of the new devices is still being tweaked as Nielsen continues tests with “friends and family” to make sure they work. The smaller devices must have adequate battery life to last through a panelist’s day, be waterproof, and have sufficient microphone capability to detect the inaudible codes embedded in broadcasts.

After spending much of 2018 testing prototypes, Nielsen expects to receive a batch of the new wearables in early 2019 for further testing. “Any time you change the device, you have to test everything,” Nielsen senior VP of Local Product Leadership Bill Rose told Inside Radio in an interview. “It’s the ratings company’s Hippocratic Oath of do no harm, so we have to really put it through its paces.”

Many believe today’s clunky PPM device is too large for young people to carry. The hope is that shrinking its size and making it resemble cool gadgets like a Fitbit or Apple Watch will make the meter easier for panelists to carry and thus improve compliance levels. Some Nielsen employees and their family members have been carrying prototypes of the devices in qualitative, focus group-like tests. But changing one aspect of measurement methodology creates a domino effect where all the other components must also change and be tested, too. That includes all communications with panelists about how to use the device. And even after all of that, the wearable meters will, of course, need to be tested among actual panelists, who will be asked to carry both the existing PPM 360 device and a new wearable, so Nielsen can assess what impact the new devices have on listening estimates.

Companion Mobile App

In a major breakthrough, the new wearables would have a companion mobile app that panelists would be asked to download onto their smartphone. Unlike today’s PPMs, this would allow the wearable to communicate with the app and allow the smartphone to upload the media consumption data to Nielsen. But some panelists may not agree to do that – or even own a smartphone – so Nielsen would still need other ways to extract the data, such as a modem in the panelist’s home. The wearable PPM would also have a charger that clips onto the back of the device, like those used for fit bits and smart watches. The companion smartphone app would enable two-way communication between Nielsen and panelists via their smartphone. “It allows us to have messaging and go back and forth with them in ways that you don’t have with today’s device,” Rose explains.

Importantly, the PPM smartphone app enables new ways to measure media consumption taking place on the smartphone itself, including streaming audio and video, which would help Nielsen do a better job of capturing media consumption across platforms. Surprisingly, Nielsen has yet to commercialize a syndicated digital audio measurement service and the smartphone app could be a catalyst for that. “It opens up all kinds of new data possibilities that we’re pretty excited about, and the few clients that we've talked to in confidence about our work seem pretty excited too,” says Rose, a lifelong researcher who spent 32 years with Arbitron before it was purchased by Nielsen in 2013.

In addition, using GPS technology, the app could tell Nielsen where people are physically located when they are consuming media. And since the meter will be used to measure TV viewing in addition to radio listening, it could also correlate radio listening and TV viewing to see what TV people are watching who also listen to audio. This would allow TV networks that buy tune-in advertising—a big radio ad category—to precisely measure the impact of those campaigns.

For Nielsen, the Holy Grail is to use the PPM to track both radio listening and TV viewing, allowing for single source measurement of both media. Integrating the separate radio PPM panel with Nielsen’s Local People Meter and set top meter panels in TV homes would produce significantly larger sample sizes for both media. “That is the vision; that’s where we would like to go, if everything goes to plan,” Rose says. “If we are able to connect these currently separate panels and bring them together, we basically have a single source for that information. The benefit of having the same device across these multiple panels is that you get a much richer picture of the multiple ways people are using media together, as opposed to trying to do it in the silos that we’ve used in these past decades.” This ties into Nielsen’s “total audience” mantra, which puts the consumer at the center of all efforts to discover what they’re watching, listening to and purchasing.

While these new data possibilities are certainly the sexiest parts of the new companion app, Rose says “there’s a balancing act” between the new measurement capabilities and the primary purpose of the app, which is to improve participation and get info back from the device. And that’s where things stand today, testing the new wearables, putting them through what Rose calls “the shakedown cruise” to determine if they hear the PPM codes as well as the current device. From there the wearables would need to be tested with Nielsen’s TV panels to ensure they check all the boxes for TV measurement.

Nielsen declined to provide a projected rollout date for the new wearables until more testing is completed. Trials are expected to continue throughout 2019 and could extend into 2020. And before the device can be used for currency measurement, Nielsen and its clients need to compare the listening estimates it produces with those of the existing meters through parallel tests.

“We’re really excited about it and the customers we talk to are encouraged, too,” Rose observes. “But like all things Nielsen, they want it to happen last year and we do, too. We just want to make sure that when we go about putting in in the field, that we all understand what we’re going to get and it’s going to drive the business results that we’re ultimately all looking for.”