asiCast Special Edition I: The death of ‘digital’?

One of the frustrations felt by many who regularly attend our International Conferences is how the audience measurement community – and the wider marketing, advertising and communications industry – struggle to define the issues they are trying to settle.

Language matters and the need to arrive at a common understanding of the terms we routinely use has never been greater. In this asiCast Special, the first of a series on definitions, our Research Director Richard Marks spoke to a number of industry stakeholders about some of the terms that are particularly problematic.

First up – should we stop using the term ‘digital’ as it doesn’t help distinguish the particular characteristics of the industry we need recognise and acknowledge.

This is a transcript of the discussion originally published on 5th November 2018. You can listen again here.

Richard speaks to Tess Alps, Julien Rosanvallon, Nigel Walley, Brian Jacobs, Tim Elkington, Josh Chasin, Eija Moisala and Alex North.

asiCast Transcript

Mike Sainsbury
Chief Executive, asi, UK
For the last few years, at the end of our annual international conferences, many people have commented to us that discussions are often struggling to resolve difficult issues because of misunderstandings in the use of certain key terms. We have a crisis of definitions. It’s not a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ where there’s never a chance of reaching understanding. Rather, it’s a failure to agree precisely what the terms we use to frame our discussions really mean.

Language matters, and so our Research Director, Richard Marks, has conducted a number of interviews with stakeholders from across the industry to see if we can arrive at a level of agreement on some of the key terms we use to discuss the complex issues, especially measurement issues, we currently face. This will be the first of four special articles and I suspect there will be others to follow from this initial series.

This article was originally available as an audio podcast, which you can hear at: The death of digital?

Firstly, we wanted to understand how useful the word ‘digital’ can be when applied to audience measurement.

Richard Marks
Research Director, asi, UK
In this discussion we’re going to focus on a much-used and abused word: ‘digital’. I interviewed a wide range of stakeholders in the media industry to pose three questions in particular, the first being: What is digital? Should we be looking at an alternative word for digital? How valid is digital as a classification of advertising spend? Firstly, I asked our industry gurus and experts if there are any misuses of words that were particularly annoying them at the moment…

Tess Alps
Chair, Thinkbox, UK
The use of the word digital – it’s a perfectly good word to mean the opposite of analogue but, you know, my clock is digital, and my camera is digital, and my DVDs are digital, and my CDs are digital. That’s not how people are using it. They’re trying to use it as a synonym for the internet and that’s really not helpful when it comes to television because, obviously, all television is digital in the UK. All broadcast television, all linear broadcast television, all on-demand TV is digital and so it’s extremely confusing, not just to people in the ad industry, but people in the TV industry misuse it too. We’re as bad ourselves: people still talk about ‘digital’ channels – well, there are no ‘non-digital’ channels, so what on earth does that mean? There is deep confusion, so the word ‘digital’ seems to me completely redundant, unhelpful and certainly – as something that is supposed to mean ‘not television’ – absurd.

Julien Rosanvallon of measurement experts, Médiamétrie, does think that digital has meaning providing we accept that television is digital as well:

Julien Rosanvallon
Senior Vice-President – Television & Online, Médiamétrie, France
I think that TV is truly a fully digital medium.  Digital has totally transformed what TV is today. It has transformed the TV set itself and thus transformed the TV experience; the way TV is experienced on bigger screens, flat screens, in HD, 3D. Digital has also transformed the moment when people could watch TV, with time shift and replay TV. Last but not least, digital has also brought new devices on which TV content could be watched. So, in other words, we can say that TV is digital and very often we tend to oppose the two terms, but in fact TV is digital.

So, if we accept that television is now a digital medium, where does that leave the big online platforms?  Does Facebook think of itself as a digital company?

Alex North
Head of Solutions & Partner Development, Facebook, UK
I guess we’re essentially a digital platform, if you work on the assumption that digital means delivered via the internet or a desktop device or via a mobile device. I think digital as a concept is becoming increasingly outdated because you have what has traditionally been called TV available via digital devices: so, laptops, PCs, tablets and mobile phones now.  You also have content that has been produced and is available on platforms that have historically been called ‘digital’ – like YouTube, like Facebook – that are now being consumed on TV devices as well, so the lines are definitely blurring across the two.

To Tim Elkington of the Internet Advertising Bureau in the UK, it’s the delivery method that’s most important in differentiating what digital is and isn’t:

Tim Elkington
Chief Digital Officer, Internet Advertising Bureau, UK
The word digital’ is really interesting. I think it means different things to different people. Our definition and understanding centres around it being served via IP, so it’s the advertising you’re putting in to the website or the mobile or whatever:  is it IP based? To other people, obviously all TV is digital, you’ve got digital radio; it’s more of a method of delivery of the programme itself. I don’t pretend to understand the technicalities and it’s one of those things – the more you try to articulate it, the less convinced you are when you’re talking about it. But, I kind of know instinctively what digital advertising is and I sort of know instinctively what DAB is or digital TV.

For Decipher’s Nigel Walley, ‘digital’ actually is a useful and helpful word.  The problem lies in how it’s often deployed in language itself:

Nigel Walley
Chairman, Decipher, UK
The word ‘digital’ is a very precise term that is very helpful in certain circumstances, but it is most definitely an abused adjective. It gets used as a noun, which is one of those Silicon Valley tropes which annoys the hell out of me. Digital is not a ‘thing’, it is an adjective that needs an accompanying noun, but there are many times when the word digital is helpful. When we talk about ‘digital outdoor’ it differentiates from traditional outdoor and people know exactly what we’re talking about – but just to say the word ‘digital’ and then apply it to things is a really unhelpful misuse of an adjective.

Eija Moisala, of Finnish public broadcasters Yle, wonders whether the advent of the Internet Of Things, as opposed to single connected devices, actually means that digital may take on a new meaning:

Eija Moisala
Head of Smart Data and Audience Insight, Yle, Finland
Digital has maybe come to a new ‘blooming’, because I remember it being used a lot 10/15 years ago, and again now so maybe it’s a sign of things changing again. When I think of what Amy Webb was explaining at South by Southwest last Spring, this year is going to be the first year when smart phones are again divided into multiple different platforms. Before, we had a separate TV set and a separate radio device and separate computer where we were reading the texts, but nowadays the smartphone does all of these and Amy was saying that it’s going to go the other way, so there will be multiple home assistants, voice assistants that will also be devices that we can use.

Meaning?… It’s all about the content and what we understand about the content, and that is all digital, in a way. So, digital might be a good term to use in the newer world that we are yet again going towards because it’s not only internet. It’s not only some device. It’s more like a platform or data that we benefit from, the metadata that comes along with the content basis and that’s all digital.

comScore’s Josh Chasin also notes that the meaning of words like digital can evolve:

Josh Chasin
Chief Research Officer, comScore, USA
We name things and then over time situations change and the names are no longer salient or resonant. ‘Digital’, for example: there was a time when everybody understood what digital meant. Digital meant using the internet on a computer, but now digital could mean your refrigerator, it could mean your thermostat, so terms stick around longer than their useful meaning, I think. There’s a point where we really have to all sit down and figure out what the things are we’re talking about and what best to call them.

Brian Jacobs highlights the issues for journalists:

Brian Jacobs
Founder and CEO, BJ&A, UK
I write a blog and I write stuff for the trades (trade magazines) occasionally and I find myself in this dilemma all the time because you do tend – or I do tend! – to be kind of lazy and use the word ‘digital’ – and I sort of think I really shouldn’t be saying that because everything is digital isn’t it? So, I don’t think it’s a useful word and I wish somebody would invent another word or we could come up with a better one – which I guess is part of the purpose of these definitional conversations.

Can we come up with a better word or words to use instead of ‘digital’? 

Tess Alps: I think if you want to have a word that encompasses the functionality that you get through the internet, personally I think ‘Internet’ is a good word if you want to denote that, because there are characteristics of things delivered via the internet that matter, that distinguish it from other things and ‘connectedness’ is exactly that thing. So it’s not the fact that it’s digital, it’s the fact that it’s connected – I tend to talk about connected media because that’s the functionality that makes a difference in advertising terms and the internet is not one thing. It could be a web-based thing or an app-based thing or a mobile thing – the internet simply means interconnected networks so, in that word is connectiveness, interconnection.

Josh Chasin: It may be the case that two-way paths is a component of digital but, then again, it depends on how you choose to define digital. If we want to define it with respect to the consumer experience, then I don’t think a return path is necessary. If we want to define it in terms of the advertiser experience or the measurement experience, then a return path probably is necessary because we’re able to do things with ‘digital media’ because of the return path – and that’s true whether we’re talking about putting tags onto websites or collecting information through set-top boxes.

Thinking about the word ‘connecting’, about whether that is a better definition, I suppose the key question is why do we need to define it in such a way? So, if you’re an advertiser, do you need to know that an environment is connected to the internet in some form? Does that benefit you in some form? I understand that we can define a platform based on whether it is consumed in that way, but I think that a better way of describing the content is a ‘video environment’.

If I’m a marketer and I believe in sight, sound and motion, I have video content that I want to adapt and use across a number of different platforms. What are the platforms I can consider for my video content, on the assumption that I buy into the merits of that method of communication? I think for me, that’s the way that we should be thinking about things.

Eija Moisala: I come from Finland and I remember the phrase of Nokia ‘connecting people’. It’s a good phrase, but I’m more interested in how people are using it. Would they say that they are connected to something? Probably not. People are only using the content and they will need a lot of help from different sorts of assistants in the future, of course, people with mobile phones and the other devices. There will be multiple avatars that would help people and I don’t know if they feel to be ‘connected’ to their avatar or will it be more of a reflection of their selves, helping them to find interesting and meaningful pieces of content.

So perhaps ‘digital’ as a term isn’t dead, it’s more a question of acknowledging two things: firstly, that its meaning may have evolved and, secondly, that we need to be extremely precise in how we use the word:

Nigel Walley: Is the word ‘digital’ better replaced with ‘interactive’ or any of those other phrases?  I’m not sure.  I just think that we’re all professionals in an industry where we should expect precision amongst our fellow industry players, and I think part of the problem with the word digital is that it’s a lazy shortcut and it’s a vague shortcut.

We use DAB to describe a format of radio which is very different to FM and that is a useful and helpful differentiator.  As I said before, we use digital outdoor to differentiate between screen-based outdoor and poster based outdoor and that’s really helpful.  But to use the word ‘digital’ to describe a whole industry isn’t particularly helpful because it doesn’t even include a differentiation between interactive and non-interactive formats.

So, is ITV3 digital? Yes, it’s a digital only television channel, so when someone says I work in digital media, do they include working in digital television channels? Well, ‘no, no, no, that’s not what I mean!’ Well, you just said digital media and that includes ITV3 – so I would call on people to be much more precise in their terminology and the word digital is only very rarely helpful as an adjective to describe a noun.

Undoubtedly one of the areas where the label of ‘digital’ can cause the most controversy and argument is when we attempt to classify advertising spend and break it down into silos:

Josh Chasin: I want to suggest that what we mean when we say ‘digital’ is the internet, but I’m not sure that’s accurate either. I’m just not sure ‘digital’ is a useful term in the media space. For example, I would suggest that for a long time more than half of the ad impressions that we are exposed to are served digitally and by that I’m including set top boxes. A set top box is absolutely a digital technology so, do we consider cable a digital medium? It’s certainly distributed digitally.

Tim Elkington: I think it’s really difficult to draw the line when it comes to thinking about what type of advertising is digital and what isn’t. So, say for example you have a catch-up TV service where stuff is dynamically inserted and tailored to the particular person who is watching it at the time via postcode or IP or whatever. I think of that as digital advertising and I’m sure if you’re Thinkbox you think of that as TV advertising – and maybe the answer is that it’s both and the best way to approach it is to have a flexible definition.

Josh Chasin: I was at a recent meeting here in the US of the IAB Research Committee and one of the things on the agenda was the regular revenue report that the IAB here puts out. One of the things we were talking about was wanting to add OTT – over-the-top television – to the digital revenue report. Now, I think it’s pretty clear that that’s a chunk of ad spend that TV considers to be its own and now digital is going to consider their own.

Really what’s going on is we have legacy platforms that are converging and a distinction or differentiation between TV and digital is more an acknowledgment of legacy platform constructs than the way people will be consuming media and really transacting media going forward.

Tess Alps: When it comes to breaking down ad revenue, I think we think not only are we beyond the ‘digital‘ word, but we’re beyond the ‘internet’ word almost. The internet is going to be integrated into so many media, the internet is going to be a very common piece of technology that is used on outdoor screens, for radio… so, I think ad revenue needs to be split down in a very different way, a much more granular way.

Why isn’t ‘search’ a category in its own right?  It’s many, many, many times bigger than ‘cinema’ – you still have this quaint category called ‘cinema’, but ‘search’ seems to have to be lumped in with digital. This is all to do with the agenda of, I suspect, the Internet Advertising Bureau who are responsible for publishing internet-based media ad revenue and, for some reason, they seem to want to have the biggest pie imaginable, so they suck in every possible thing they can put into that number. Then they sub-divide it themselves into search and online video and online display and email, and clearly the internet is going to be part of almost every medium in some way. So, it’s like electricity – we don’t have an electricity category for ad spend or a pay-per category and I think we’re now beyond the time when even having just an internet category, let alone a digital category, makes any sense.

Tim Elkington: It’s really interesting: every time we publish the digital ad spend study, someone will contact me and say, ‘You’re misusing the word digital’ or text or tweet me and say, ‘Yeah, everything’s digital these days. Why are you still using it?’ And the truth is that I have some sympathy for that, but we don’t have a better word.

We could say ‘this is the total of desktop, mobile and tablet advertising’ plus it’s ‘this, that and the other’, but then it becomes such a sort of unwieldy, complicated definition to make it unusable, so I think we’ll continue to use the word digital. I think what we’ve developed kind of works in that it’s basically a sort of Venn diagram in that there is cross over.

We use flexible definitions when we publish our ad spend report, but basically, if you want to count anything that happens on a device as digital you can, but if you want to remove the stuff from digital that is basically either TV VOD or is magazine or news brand stuff that happens to be on a device, not on a piece of paper, you can remove that.  And if you do remove that, you get left with what we call Internet pure play which is basically Google, Facebook, Twitter, Oath; all of the people that only have a digital delivery.’

Richard Marks:  Looking across all our discussions about the word digital, I think I’m convinced that the word still has its uses, providing it is used accurately.  The problem is that with the vast majority of the media world and wider everyday life being technically digital, I would question its use as somehow describing a cohesive type of media.

Headlines and articles that talk about digital versus traditional media or digital versus television drive me up the wall and we have to be vigilant in taking people to task when they do this.

I’d also question how much longer the word digital could be used to categorise ad spend if non-digital ad spend becomes a small minority.  It’s a way of delivering content and advertising that most media now use as a default.

Talking of the dread phrase ‘digital vs television’, our next article is intriguingly titled What is ‘television?’

We would like to thank all the contributors to this asi initiative.