POPAI (Point-of-Purchase Advertising International) has been a source of industry research for over 70 years now, and its library of documents studying everything from store traffic patterns to intellectual property rights is an invaluable research tool for anybody working on any form of in-store media. But like any industry organization, an even bigger benefit of being a POPAI member is gaining access to the ongoing events and research articles that they sponsor. Thus, ever since they started talking about their plan to comprehensively measure the benefits of in-store media late last year, we've all been waiting anxiously to finally see an unbiased picture of the effects of this media in action. Unfortunately, though, we may have to wait a bit longer. According to Advertising Age, "The country's top package-goods marketer, Procter & Gamble, and largest retailer, Wal-Mart, have opted not to participate," casting some doubt over POPAI's claim that the study will be comprehensive and broadly applicable to US retail environments.
While this is a significant blow to the group, POPAI CEO Dick Blatt insists that the study will continue on, noting that sometimes the goals of a not-for-profit group like POPAI can't line up with the agendas of huge retailers and CPG manufacturers. Given the negative slant of the AdAge article, he saw fit to email all POPAI members with an explanation and the real status of the in-store marketing study that they've thus far poured over $1M into. As Blatt states in his email, "[POPAI's] vision has been clear: to provide measures for our medium is our best opportunity to make it value driven, not price driven, and to ensure its place in the strategic marketing mix." That's no small undertaking to be sure, but as AdAge points out, there are other organizations that might gain an upper hand by giving special consideration to one of the 800 lb gorillas, e.g. a right to "review and verify" all findings before they're published, or even omit certain parts of their data from the published findings. This might provide a competing research firm with the leverage to perform their own in-store marketing study with the help of Wal-Mart, P&G, or both. For example, Peter Hoyt, executive director of the for-profit In-Store Marketing Institute, said his organization is assembling its own research study with aims similar to the POPAI study. While he hasn't yet signed Wal-Mart or P&G, you can bet he's trying hard to get them on board with his team.
So there are two critical issues that really need to be given some thought here. First of all, is there a difference between research from a not-for-profit group and a for-profit one? It seems that being a not-for-profit group is both POPAI's greatest strength and greatest weakness. Without a need to deliver growth and increased shareholder value, POPAI ought to be able to deliver less-biased research than their for-profit counterparts. By the same token, though, they have to address the needs of a very wide range of companies, from the biggest retailers to the smallest support vendors, and that makes the nature of their task quite challenging. On the flip side are groups like ISMI, who are for-profit, and thus work according to a corporate agenda of "what will make my company valuable?" They can more readily pick-and-choose their target audiences and terms of engagement, but it also potentially makes their research more suspect, since they could be influenced by key shareholders, big customers, etc. I really couldn't say which group produces better research, or which is more or less biased (and in fact, if both groups are doing their jobs, they really ought to be relatively unbiased), but it's clear that both approaches have their pluses and minuses. Actually, that's one of the things that always interested me about trade journals like AdAge: many times, their subscribers, advertisers, and article subjects are the same people or organizations, which makes for a number of potential conflicts of interest. It seems like higher-quality publications are able to manage this pretty well, but I still try to watch out for the spin factor when reading trade articles.
The other item that we need to look at is whether or not the participants in these types of studies have an incentive to bias the results in one way or another. For example, as Brand Experience Lab's David Polinchock points out towards the end of the AdAge article, "there are just so many competing agendas among the retailers and big brands.... Let's say, when you look at what PRN says, that they have 140 million viewers a week in their stores.... What if this study showed that they really only have 2 million engaged viewers?" Polinchock has a valid point here, and the pitfall he mentions has almost certainly crossed the minds of Wal-Mart and PRN execs. Nobody wants to see their results go down, or their own internal research efforts disproved. But at the same time, all groups involved have to give their consent for products to be tracked and sales data to be analyzed. The result is that groups who stand to lose the most, usually the market leaders, will be the least likely to participate. Pretty obvious, right?
Unfortunately, it seems like the only way to fix this problem is to get retailers and CPGs alike to agree to a double-blind study. But this too has its own problems (and that's assuming that you could actually get anybody to agree to such a thing), since removing the source of the data makes it much less compelling. After all, would you be more interested in hearing about how a hypothetical generic retailer is using new POP displays or wayfinding signage, or instead, how Wal-Mart or Target or Best Buy approaches it? In fact, POPAI's current studies typically list the group of participants and sponsors, even if they don't always single out a particular brand or retailer's research results.
Here's my final unanswered question for the day: if and when POPAI does release the results of some definitive-esque study, will AdAge write about it? It seems like they've generally taken the approach of downplaying the influence and impact of in-store media, and have rarely written anything positive (or even neutral) about it (for example, after Wal-Mart said that in-store media was its most important channel). Meanwhile, POPAI is left playing a defensive game, when in reality they should be reaching out to their brethren in the above-the-line advertising industry. This could be a great opportunity to invite comments and participation from a much wider and more diverse audience than has been aware of POPAI before, such as media buyers who might be interested in digital signage placement for their clients. So, while the clash of cultures and ideologies will probably continue for the near-term, we need to remember that our long-term goal -- making media measurable -- is one and the same.