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IRS Special: Numbers alone do not explain everything

By Aditya Tandon , New Delhi | In Media Publishing | December 28, 2009
There is a need for marketers to take a nuanced view of the data generated by IRS

The health of a product, brand or business unit is most often measured by a clearly quantitative yardstick - an index or a metric - that collapses to a single digit or perhaps two.

Marketing is no different. If anything, the pressure to anchor decision-making and performance measurement in numbers is even more. Marketing is often viewed through the prism of creative brilliance and abstract sociological constructs. The need to link every single rupee spent on advertising to tangible business results has become paramount.

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It is against this backdrop that a market survey, any market survey, needs to be viewed. Tools such as the IRS provide marketers with a potent aid - a robust starting point to commence planning. A data set capturing consumption habits across multiple media brands, product categories, and delineating demographic trends undoubtedly provides invaluable insights. Advertising decisions, seeking to optimise the reach-frequency play-off and the consequent impact on market, depend heavily on the same.

A little Caution:
The widespread use of IRS notwithstanding, marketers should take a nuanced view of the data. "Torture numbers," it is said "and they will confess to anything." Indeed the same data can be made to sing completely different tunes by those skilled in these matters. It is not strange to find different publications claiming the numero uno position in the same market. The only twist in this tale is the fine print which specifies the particular slice of data for which the brand rules the roost.

Another critical issue is that of extrapolating the survey's findings to the entire population. A sample survey typically will be able to capture the broad trends but may miss the mark when it comes to the finer details. This perhaps is the reason that the IRS findings have often become mired in controversies. Though MRUC, the agency behind the IRS, has taken many steps to strengthen all aspects of the research over the years, it must be noted that even a minor skew in the sample or data collection process may directly and significantly impact the conclusions, especially if these are extended to a much larger base.

Reading it Right:
Data often tells only a part of the story. A media brand may have a certain percentage of its consumers tagged as graduates. But this does not tell the marketer anything about the quality of this statistic. Imagine a scenario where a recruitment ad is released based on this number and the quality of graduates is such that overall return in terms of the number of hires is abysmal!

In the competitive world of high decibel campaigns, delivering reach and numbers no longer suffice. Communication is tasked with the responsibility of delivering impact. It becomes all the more imperative that marketers dissect the data thoroughly to get to what is really relevant to them. Only then can they get to a best-fit solution and deliver high returns on their investment plans.

(The author is former DGM, Service Marketing, Datacom Solutions)

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