Linear Attribution Model: What Is It and How Does It Work?
by Cat Hausler
6 Min Read
7 Min Read
Streaming and Connected TV are cannibalizing Linear TV audiences fast—you probably know that already. But what does that mean, particularly in terms of viewership? How exactly do we measure viewership on these various platforms? Read on for a deeper understanding of measuring linear and CTV viewership.
On Linear TV, shows are aired in a sequential, “linear” order, and viewers have to catch them when they’re on, like Seinfeld in the heyday of NBC (as opposed to Seinfeld on Netflix now, which you can watch anytime). Linear TV still has some value, to be sure: it’s still popular with older viewers and audiences who want to see live TV now, like sports games (though even those audiences are changing rapidly).
Linear TV measurement is traditionally conducted by Nielsen, which uses statistical sampling to determine how many viewers we can assume are watching any channel at one time. It does this by issuing Nielsen devices to about 100,000 viewers across 41,000 households and calculating the share of these households tuned into a show at any one time. So if 8.3% of their households are watching The Masked Singer, Nielsen extrapolates that number to be true of all of America.
Linear TV measurement and Linear TV, in general, used to be a lot more straightforward than it is now. When there were only three networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—taking a sample of a certain number of households was a relatively representative way of measuring viewer engagement. But as you can probably imagine, things have gotten a bit more complicated since then.
Linear TV measurement does give you the advantage of clarity. When you see that The Big Game has a rating of 40—that is, 40% of the viewing population is tuned in—that’s pretty impressive, regardless of whether it’s slightly more or less accurate. It explains why advertisers are willing to pay top dollar for TV’s coveted spot: with Linear TV advertising, you can be all but certain you’re reaching the audience that wants to watch that special live show, and that they’ll be amenable to watching entertaining spots. (Indeed, for many viewers, the expensive, high-stakes nature of those commercials are part of the appeal.)
Nielsen ratings can also provide you with measurable gains or losses in terms of popularity. Headlines about the increasing or decreasing popularity of events like the Oscars can be a useful barometer on viewership trends and, thus, the price tag for an ad spot on one of these shows—so you know whether you’re getting your money’s worth.
Today there are a lot of ways to watch TV, be it linear, streaming, pay-per-view, and so on. Population breakdowns are also a lot more diverse than they were in 1950 when Nielsen started measuring TV viewership; for every general demographic set, there are countless interests that networks and brands are trying to cater to. Because of this, Linear TV ratings today may only represent:
While 100,000 viewers may seem like a good number from which to extrapolate, the United States has a population of over 335 million, it seems almost comically like a drop in the bucket. (To be precise, that’s 0.0003%. 333 American cities are bigger than this sample size.)
The ratings of The Big Game may seem incredibly impressive in isolation, but how many more viewers consume ads on social media or YouTube? (Look up the view count on any BTS music video, for starters.)
And even if it were more reliable measurement-wise, Linear TV advertising is expensive. That makes sense; the purpose of ratings is to price out the cost of ad spots. But with its hit-or-miss nature, the expense of Linear TV ads may not be warranted.
Additionally, since linear measurement comes down to the maintenance of Nielsen’s famous viewing boxes, there can be instances of undercounting and inaccuracies in their figures, which happened during the pandemic.
Connected TV gives you the data advantages associated with the web, and is generally a lot more targeted in its approach than Linear TV measurement. CTV is also rising in popularity, with 87% of US households owning at least one CTV device.
Measurement works much like web data in any Connected TV advertising campaign. It uses third-party data to paint a specific picture of who’s watching, because it’s linked to the device on which the content is being watched, which is usually registered to its user. It’s granular and can determine such elements as impressions (the number of times your ad has been watched) and reach (how many people have seen your ad), as well as conversions (how many views result in sales or other actions). These are possible because the data from a viewer’s CTV device can also be connected to data from their phone and other screens, allowing for a more complete picture of any given content’s impact.
One of the most important advantages of CTV is that, for advertisers, broad-strokes numbers matter far less than targeted, precision ones. Say you’re a local comic book store. Would you rather advertise on a show that just gets large numbers—say, Monday Night Football—or a more niche show that appeals directly to your particular audience—like Star Trek? CTV viewership information is about reaching the audience you care about most.
Because they’re more precise, CTV ads can also be more affordable than linear. If you isolate the viewers you want to reach, you can target them more affordably via CTV. And because measurement is targeted in CTV, you can deploy it in service of specific campaign goals—then measure its success.
On the other hand, one thing CTV measurement can’t offer is the carpet-bombing approach of Linear TV ads. When you advertise on CTV, the demographic profile of your ideal customer needs to be accurate. You might miss whoever’s tuning into a network crime procedural this week, but if you know that those audiences tend to be older and that motivated viewers will seek out their favorite shows and catch up with CTV and streaming, you can plan more confidently and still reach your target audience.
Some unscrupulous CTV advertisers also bundle and resell their ads numerous times, adding murkiness to a field that, in a perfect world, ought to be supremely clear and measurable. So make sure to only go with a CTV partner that offers transparency in how it measures its CTV data.
As we’ve established, Linear TV is the traditional way of TV advertising and viewing. CTV, on the other hand, is a newer channel for reaching consumers over the living room screen. But just because it hasn’t been around as long doesn’t mean it won’t have an impact—billions of dollars are spent on CTV content and 15 million years’ worth of content was streamed in 2021 (a pandemic year, yes, but once viewers are hooked, they tend to stay hooked).
Both of these channels have their own strengths—in fact, one might argue that campaigns are stronger when run on both linear and CTV. After all, Linear TV’s large reach makes it the perfect channel for branding strategies focused on driving awareness. CTV measurement, on the other hand, is targeted and precise, making it more suited for performance-focus strategies that focus on the bottom of the funnel.
CTV programmers know exactly who’s watching and engaging with which piece of content or advertising, including the exact frame when they stop watching. Of course, your hope as an advertiser is to keep them watching. That’s where working with a company like MNTN comes in. MNTN Performance TV is the hardest working software in television, devoted to transforming your CTV into a performance device that delivers measurable results and success for advertisers who want to connect with the right audience for their brand.
And working with MNTN on your CTV campaigns means that if you don’t connect at first, you can keep honing your ad creative and its placement until you do. With MNTN, success is measurable and, excitingly, within your grasp.
With a lot of metrics, jargon, and competition for eyeballs in the world of TV right now, all your choices can seem overwhelming. But they don’t have to be. And by partnering with a company like MNTN, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2023, you can ensure your TV campaigns are measurable and will get you results.
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