Audience Insights: Concrete Calculations and the Potential Pitfalls of Percentages

11.08.2022 David Gustafson3 min

Before he retired during my senior year in high school, my father spent two decades running his own ready-mix concrete business. Like so many small-business owners, Gus moved seamlessly from one role to another at breakneck speed. Depending on the circumstances of the day, he served as customer relations supervisor, lead dispatcher, senior batch-plant operator, associate mechanic, accounts payable/receivable manager, marketing coordinator, and vendor relations specialist.

While nearly all those roles required at least some knack for numbers, Gus was at his best with a scratch pad, a pencil, his trusty pocket calculator, and a slide rule – all of which he used to determine precisely how many cubic yards of concrete were needed based on the dimensions of the project.

Those calculations were complex but always accurate – each one as critical as the next, regardless of the size of the job. And, interestingly, the output was always about the delivery. Percentages played no part. There were no “share” statistics to show what portion of a residential neighborhood would be covered by the new slab of fresh concrete, nor any advanced analytics to determine what each delivery represented as a percentage of the total concrete being poured throughout the city on a given day. Instead, the equations were simpler determinations of whether what was needed could be delivered.

Having now spent roughly the same amount of time in media research as my father did crunching concrete calculations, I continue to marvel at how percentages often overcomplicate the local advertising landscape. Make no mistake, percentages can provide important analytical perspective and context for how certain things compare and change over time. That said, percentages alone rarely tell the whole story. As evidence, we turn to advertising researchers DeBartolo and Clarke, whose groundbreaking 1972 publication “MADvertising…An Accumulation of Asinine and Atrocious Advertising Approaches” examines three relevant case studies:

  • The makers of Glint Shoe Polish publicized phenomenal growth, touting that “February sales are up 100% over January.”  Digging a bit deeper, though, the authors found that only two cases of Glint were sold in February, compared to a single case in January.
  • Similarly, the team at Blue Hat Margarine relied solely on percentages when citing data showing their sales volume was double that of their primary competitor, Bleekstone.  Again, the authors found that actual sales for the week in question consisted of two packages for Blue Hat vs. one package for Bleekstone.
  • Finally, the marketers of Waxmell House Coffee claimed that “a whopping 60% of everyone we asked agreed” that Waxmell House is the best-tasting coffee.  Technically correct, but they only asked 10 people, six of whom happened to think Waxmell House was “pretty good.”

Yes, these are fictitious examples, but they are not too far off from reality, particularly in a Local TV marketplace that has been rooted in rating points for decades upon decades.  Rating points, by definition, are percentages that we sum together to create gross rating points, or GRPs.  As a result, 100 GRPs in a top-10 TV market delivers significantly more “yards of concrete” than 100 GRPs in Markets 100 and beyond

We routinely rely on similar logic when breaking apart the GRPs, zeroing in on the reach percentage instead of the number of unique homes or viewers exposed to the campaign.  And all those percentages can change in an instant if the measurement companies decide to change the size of the market – e.g., Comscore creating their own TV Market definitions and Nielsen expanding DMA definitions to include broadband-only (BBO) homes.

Those kinds of changes can create even more confusion when too much emphasis is placed on penetration percentages to drive TV buying decisions.  Universally applied penetration-based thresholds produce skewed evaluations that can lead to bypassing a market of 1 million homes with a penetration of “only” 25% in favor of a 75% penetration rate in a market a quarter the size – even though the former actually delivers more concrete.  

Unlike Streaming and many Digital advertising solutions that seem to have successfully shifted the scales to audience delivery over percentages, Local TV sometimes still seems mired in the percentage pitfalls that provide the basis for one of my father’s favorite jokes.  Gus loved to tell the one about the guy who went to pick up a large pizza for takeout.  When the gentleman arrived at the restaurant, the staff asked if he wanted the pizza cut into eight slices or 12 slices.  A bit perplexed, the customer pondered his options.  “Well,” he said, “I suppose you better make it eight…I don’t know if we could eat 12 slices.”

Whether your next campaign promotes pizza, concrete, or something completely different, Cox Media has the tools to help you move beyond percentages and understand audience delivery across multiple screens.  Use the form to the right to connect with a Marketing Expert or contact your local Cox Media team today to get started!

About the Author

David Gustafson

As Cox Media’s Director of Linear & Audience Research, David plays a key role in the company’s usage and interpretation of TV audience data. With more than two decades of industry experience, David currently is a member of the Nielsen Local Policy Guidelines Committee (PGC) and VAB Measurement Innovation Task Force, as well as client advisor to Comscore. Known as “The Professor,” David’s articles combine his passion for writing with a penchant for concisely explaining complex topics.

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