in Data & Insights

Why Quantcast Doesn™’t Use a Panel

At MPG’s Collaborative Alliance meeting on December 2nd, Current TV’s head of research, Theresa Falcon, bravely stood up and pleaded with industry executives to help find new ways to improve audience measurement for small or emerging media outlets. In her opinion, existing panel-based methodologies such as Nielsen’s national TV panel of 14K households are ill equipped to handle Current TV’s evolving measurement needs.

While the various panel-based syndicated measurement sources for TV, radio, and online are considered gospel by many in the industry, there is a growing number of media executives, like Ms. Falcon, who view their respective audience results with increasing skepticism. They perceive an increasing dissonance between media forms offered and the ability to consistently understand their audience size and demographic characteristics. As a consequence, even subtle changes in panel-based data may dramatically impact performance and, ultimately, the bottom line.

It’s not just emerging media outlets like Current TV looking for new solutions beyond existing panel-based approaches. For example, earlier this year NBC faced the daunting challenge of showcasing their multi-platform content for the Beijing Olympics to marketers without consistent third-party validation of performance.

Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal on their measurement efforts, “Management said to me we have to figure out a way to go beyond Nielsen to measure this stuff.”

Subsequently, NBC utilized a number of alternate measurement services, including direct measurement firm Quantcast, to better understand the audience characteristics of their Olympics content.
Challenge: In an increasingly diverse and addressable digital media marketplace, can panel-based methodologies offer enough actionable insight to enable publishers and marketers to properly evaluate target audiences for advertising investments?

Quantcast feels the answer lies well outside the realm of existing panel-based methodologies. Digital content and related marketing are delivered to consumers dynamically and in real time, while panel-based methodologies deliver supportive audience data weeks or even months later. Such latency in reporting may have been acceptable in the past for radio, television, or an early-simplified view of the digital space.

Not today. Panel-based measurement solutions lack the scale, flexibility and immediacy to deliver actionable insights for an increasingly complex and fragmented digital media marketplace.

The case for ‘direct measurement’

In the book Mass Media Research, writers Roger D. Wimmer and Joseph R. Dominick state quite succinctly (in their apparent defense of panels), “it would be impossible for any ratings company to conduct a census of media use.”

The 8th edition of this text was released in 2005. Perhaps if they witnessed first hand the challenges of measuring an evolving digital marketplace via panels they would reconsider their position (or perhaps even add a chapter in their next edition focusing on media fragmentation)?

As the media landscape continues its transition from analog to digital, enabling ever more discrete forms of content creation and distribution, Quantcast feels, despite Professor Wimmer & Dominick’s assertions, that a census or direct measurement approach is the most viable and consistent method available to understand the increasingly fragmented audience activity taking place on these emerging digital media platforms and services.

In fact, today Quantcast processes upwards of 4 billion new media consumption events every day, and for the media firms who participate this is a census. Rapid changes in technological capabilities mean that a full census of media consumption is possible today – sure its technically challenging, but it is possible. And, when you can comprehensively measure media consumption via a census, it’s a game changer.

Put simply, Quantcast doesn’t have a panel.

In a major departure from existing panel-based measurement methodologies, Quantcast’s inference-based solution couples machine learning with massive quantities of directly measured data from over 85K partner publishers and marketers to deliver detailed audience data in real-time for all forms of digital media including websites, video, audio, widgets, downloads, and advertising campaigns.

The direct measurement approach allows Quantcast to deliver a census view of all respondent level activity for reach and inventory measures, as well as fine-grained profiles on demographic, geographic, business and lifestyle attributes.

Note: For a detailed overview of Quantcast’s inference-based, direct measurement methodology, please visit

Advantages to direct measurement

Quantcast’s direct measurement approach addresses, quite elegantly, some of the most nagging measurement challenges facing the digital media marketplace including latency of reporting, granularity of data, geography and cost:


  • Panel: Limited overnight data available ‘by special request’ only. Syndicated reports typically take anywhere from one week (for the basics) to a month or more, while custom reports may take even longer
  • Direct: Audience reports for quantified publishers are delivered in near real time, typically within hours of the observation window


  • Panel: Even with a sample base of nearly 2 million, panel-based methodologies consistently report monthly data on only 30K-40K domains
  • Direct: Daily audience profile reports on over 10 million media assets with as few as 500 unique exposures


  • Panel: Inconsistent methodologies comparing US to globe, while granularity limits depth of local reporting
  • Direct: Both US and global data (by country) for all quantified publishers in the U.S. Local demographic reports available for all 210 US DMAs


  • Panel: Unclear Fortune 1000 representation in workplace. Student representation also unclear
  • Direct: Reports on industry type as well as small, medium and large business owners. Similar reports available for both schools and universities

In addition to the direct measurement advantages listed above, Quantcast’s methodology is also technology and content agnostic, meaning any new addressable media platform or content type including video, audio, widgets, ad campaigns, (all with as few as 500 unique exposures) can be configured to support direct measurement.

Panel-based approaches, however, typically have a difficult time adjusting to technology changes from publishers, marketers or even consumers. For example, a re-emergent Apple now garners a sizable portion of the new computer market. According to Apple, nearly 1 in 5 new computers purchased (either desktop or laptop) is Mac OS-based. This figure rises to nearly one-third among students.

Despite Mac’s newly found prominence in the consumer market, existing panel-based measurement services do not include them in their sample, citing software compatibility issues.

Panel-based services must also resort to what are called site/panel intersects to report audience data for video, widgets, ad creative and other addressable media types. In such scenarios, panel-based data is matched against pixels or tagged media from either the publisher or marketer.

Site-panel intersect models suffer from all of the same sample size limitations and biases of traditional panel-based approaches (as listed above). Each piece of tagged content must reach a significant threshold of panel exposures among the panel before projectable demographic data can be generated.

A last point worth making is that while panel-based services have steep fees associated with them, Quantcast provides its direct measurement services absolutely free to all publishers and marketers. This is not a feature of direct-measurement, but rather an aspect of Quantcast’s business model which is based on enabling addressable advertising. However, it does mean that anyone can take advantage of this pioneering direct measurement approach at no cost.

Direct measurement promotes a common language

Quantcast is gratified that esteemed media companies such as MTV Networks, Disney, Hulu, NBC, Time Inc, Bloomberg, Gawker, and over 85K other publishers and marketers have embraced inference-based direct measurement as a viable alternative to existing panel-based audience measurement solutions.

As digital media publishers bring new advertising opportunities to marketers, Quantcast seeks to enable a ‘common language’ between all parties using this inference-based direct measurement approach, finally putting to rest some of the most nagging audience measurement issues currently facing the digital media marketplace,

Publisher and marketer exchanges once clouded by a collective disagreement over which numbers matter most, can get back to the more appropriate topics of brand goals and performance.

No panel required.