Arbitron: Gaming the System

Apparently the incentives for using Arbitron’s Purple People Meter have led some folks to augment their incomes with some choice chicanery, according to this post from Radio InSights blog called “Arbitron’s Perverse PPM Panelist Incentives”:

In a story that first broke last December, Broadcast Architecture’s Allen Kepler told of PPM panelists attaching meters to ceiling fans to earn extra cash:

One woman said she knows it is technically “cheating” but she was motivated by earning points for cash. “I know we shouldn’t do it, but we wanted to make sure our numbers were still there.”

The numbers are the points that participants earn to increase the cash they make. Some families can make a $1000 a month. The shocking discovery that PPM panelists game Arbitron for financial gain shouldn’t be all that shocking.

British broadcasters reached the same conclusion six years ago in 2005. It is a key reason they unplugged the meters:

Ultimately, we had to concede that the methodology was measuring people’s interaction with the methodology itself, and not with the media we were supposed to be measuring.

PPM panelists can make good money. But they make good money only if they do what Arbitron tells them to do, that they are compliant. How do you stay compliant? Keep that meter moving.

Hence the ceiling fan.

If a meter sits still for a day, the family is likely to get a call. “We see your children’s meters didn’t move yesterday. Better get them moving.”

No need to explain the implied threat. Panelists know the drill. They are told that repeated non-compliance and the meters will be pulled along with all that money. We know all this because Harker Research staffers also talk to PPM panelists. The panelists we talk to tell us they too game the system.

Panelists explain that Arbitron even has weekend contests to make sure panelists carry the meter on their days off. If compliance falls off, the in-tabs fall off. On any given day Arbitron might have a quarter or more of the meters just sitting at home, and that hurts the already small in-tabs.

The conclusion?

As British broadcasters concluded six years ago, Arbitron is now in the business of measuring people’s behavior, their willingness (and creativity) to keep a pager in motion through the day.

If it picks up a radio station or two, it’s just a bonus.

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