The 100 year race to measure everything we do and everything we feel

We’ve launched an occasional series about sports fans. The working title was Proxy, but we’ve settled for the less pretentious Who’s There?

The idea is to dig a bit deeper in to how sport views the people they think are their customers. Like you, I hear from a lot of people selling variations of fan engagement data models, the promise of which is to improve our knowledge, understanding and ability to sell stuff to sports fans.

But I wanted to pan out a bit, and ask how we got to where we are now, which is why I sought the views of Matt Locke, who is a bloody genius at getting to first principles when it comes to understanding media audiences.

Matt wrote a series of essays called How To Measure Ghosts, which is essential reading for anyone with ‘fan insight’ in their job title, because it is the 100 year story of audience measurement.

In the early twentieth century, the invention of radio broadcast networks (and the telephone services that preceded them) created a fascinating new problem for cultural entrepreneurs - how do you measure invisible audiences? If you don’t have a tangible connection with them, through ticket sales, or by being in the same room as them, how can you tell how many people are listening or viewing? The last 100 years have been a journey to see how to measure ghosts - how to measure the invisible audiences at the end of technological distribution networks. With every decade, these ghosts have come more and more into focus, ending with a the last ten years of social media and digital advertising that has created unimaginable amounts of data about everything we see, read, click and like.

Within the story there’s a cast of characters whose names will be familiar, in particular the way Matt compares the lives of Arthur J Nielsen and George Gallup, the former of which he describes as “one of the most influential and under-studied figures of the twentieth century”. Nielsen once said to his son ‘If you can put a number on it, then you know something’, which could be the brand strapline of every sports data and insight startup from Shoreditch to Brooklyn.

Caption: Arthur J Nielsen’s Audimeter which measured radio audiences via time-stamped marks in a slowly revolving roll of paper tape, he started the process of turning audiences into numbers. Rather than relying on what we say we listen to when interviewed by a researcher, Nielsen had actual data about what we do, driven by each turn of the radio dial.


…in the stories of Arthur C Nielsen and George Gallup, we have two pioneers of audience measurement. One focused on measuring our behaviour, the other on our feelings and opinions. There are remarkable similarities in their lives - they both created companies that bore their names and became bywords for their industry - the Gallup poll and Nielsen ratings. They were both born at the turn of the 20th Century - Nielsen in 1897 and Gallup in 1901, and both died in the 1980s, just as computers were ushering in the Information Age that there work had laid so much of the groundwork for.They each represent a different path for audience measurement in the last 100 years, one on behavioural data, and one on audience opinions. Between them, they invented techniques to measure everything we do, and everything we feel. I have a sense that telling the stories of their parallel lives will be a great lens to tell the history of audience metrics. The process of measuring what we do and what we feel were separate for much of the last 100 years, and this separation is perfectly represented in the lives of Gallup and Nielsen.

From Nielsen and Gallup to Zuckerberg. Neat no?

Arthur C Nielsen died in June 1980, and Gallup in July 1984. Just a couple of months earlier, in May 1984, Mark Zuckerberg was born, the person who would, by connecting the Facebook social graph to the like button, bring the two worlds of Nielsen and Gallup crashing together and turn Facebook into the ultimate store of data on everything we do, and everything we feel.

Listen to episode 1 of Who’s There with Matt Locke or contact us direct.

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