The Pros and Cons of PPM Ratings

The Pros and Cons of PPM Ratings

by Tracy Johnson

Depending on the ratings service and market, there are two types of ratings methodologies. One compiles ratings using diary methodology. The other is PPM Ratings, or Personal People Meter.

PPM was first introduced in the last half of the first decade of this century. It was initially welcomed as a dramatic upgrade from traditional Diary methodology because it measured actual listening. But in spite of the improvements, there are obvious flaws.

How PPM Ratings (Personal People Meter) Works

Ratings services using PPM ratings recruit respondents to carry a physical meter that resembles a pager. That’s right. A ppm personal people meter

To capture and record listening, radio stations broadcast an inaudible code unique to that station. The station adds an encoder in their audio chain so the meter can credit the station.

When the meter picks up a signal, it credits the radio station. As with the Diary methodology, a station must earn at least five minutes of listening in a quarter-hour (in the US) to receive credit.

Each respondent is asked to carry their meter from the time they wake up until they time they go to sleep.

recharging a ppm deviceAt bedtime, they’re to place the meter in a charging dock. The dock also uploads their daily listening to the company’s database. This allows the ratings service to produce daily ratings.

PPM Markets Served

PPM has been methodically introduced to larger markets, while medium and smaller markets remain served by Diary methodology.

The main reason it has not spread to all markets is the cost of administering meters. It’s more difficult to recruit and more expensive to manage.

Another factor: fewer radio stations/companies in a market means less revenue potential for the ratings company.

Ratings companies have continued to expand to a broader client base, but until the cost of compiling the ratings drops or revenue increases, it’s unlikely smaller markets will be introduced to Personal People Meter technology.

PPM Ratings Impact

The introduction of PPM has caused dramatic changes to how radio stations are rated.

There are two main differences in ratings results:

More Stations Credited. Perceptual research that asks respondents to list all the stations they listen to in a typical week typically results in 3-5 stations named. This can be tested just by asking someone at random what stations they typically listen to.

Unaided recall always results in fewer stations reported than aided recall. In other words, provide with a list of stations, respondents will suddenly remember that they listen to more stations. The gap between recalled stations and stations actually heard is often referred to as Phantom Cume.

In diary measurement, actual listening is never measured unless it’s recalled.

TOMA. Top Of Mind Awareness is perhaps the most important attribute when ratings are compiled by diary. TOMA is also important in metered markets, but ratings are earned whenever a station is recognized by a meter. This has led many programmers to incorrectly assume being Top of Mind is no longer important (see below).

Phantom Cume. Many more stations receive credit than in diary measurement, including stations a listener may not even remember or recall. Many listeners simply push a button, and may not even know the station’s identity. This is called Incidental Listening. The respondent doesn’t actively choose the station. They can’t even remember it exists!

The net result is a dramatically higher cumulative audience (Cume). However, PPM analysis also reveals that even a station’s most valuable listeners (First Preference, or P1 listeners) tune in far less often and on fewer days than recorded by Diary.

Lower Time Spent Listening (TSL). PPM captures actual (mostly) listener behavior, which is quite different than the stations they remember (recall).

In reality, listeners change stations frequently, especially in the car. Yet when asked to recall what they listen to, they typically list the stations they remember most (their favorite stations).

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Therefore, compared to Diary methodology, PPM reports lower TSL and higher cume.

Impact of Personal People Meter: Branding Is Still Important?

Because of how PPM measures listening, many programmers conclude that branding is irrelevant. Or at least, they consider it less important. After all, they receive credit for listening when the meter is tuned in, right? Why does positioning and branding matter?

Top of Mind Awareness could be even more important in PPM. Deeper analysis of Personal People Meter results shows how quickly and how often the audience tunes away from station to station.

One study showed that nearly 50% of a typical station’s listeners tune in for less than 2.5 minutes per day! When listeners tune out that often, doesn’t it make sense to make every effort to be memorable? That’s TOMA.

More on TOMA is discussed here.

Personal People Meter Flaws

No ratings system is ideal. And while PPM offers improved accuracy, there are still many drawbacks, including:

Sample Size

Because more is required of a PPM respondent, recruiting a valid sample is more difficult in PPM.

Carrying a meter is inconvenient. Seriously, who wants to drag around yet another device every day? Especially one that resembles decades-old technology.

More respondents may be willing to participate if requirements were relaxed. A significant barrier is that each meter must be in motion. If it is placed on a desk or table, or even tucked in a purse, the meter stops recording listening. That means it must be physically carried.

There is talk of a smartphone app to measure radio listening. As smartphones become more prominent, it could solve much of the problem.

Until then, it will continue to be difficult to recruit a sample. So when ratings companies find a household willing to participate, they ask them to be part of the panel for up to two years!

Ask anyone with a research or statistics background about this practice and you’ll quickly become skeptical of the validity of ratings.

For more on ratings sample size issues, go here.

PPM Ratings and Incidental/Accidental Listening

I referenced Incidental Listening earlier. PPM captures all encoded radio signals, regardless of whether the respondent intended to listen to that station or not. In some cases, this is an advantage. For example, a worker exposed to the workplace’s station of choice for an extended period is valid listening.

However, incidental listening can distort ratings.

Imagine a meter carrier at home while an ongoing construction project is underway. The crew turns on their radio(s) and the meter captures the PPM carrier’s “listening.” Or vice-versa. The construction worker may be exposed to the homeowner’s station of choice.

This can (and does) result in credit to a station broadcasting in a language the meter carrier can’t even understand.

Contaminated Samples

There are many cases of PPM meters being shared between individuals not even recruited to participate.

Ratings companies compensate respondents to participate. They often increase incentives for demographics difficult to attract. This is especially true with younger males.

To encourage more radio listening (which keeps radio companies happy), bonuses are offered to meter carriers in under-sampled demos.

Because the compensation is attractive, meters being carried by individuals other than those recruited is fairly common.

Sometimes a family member carries several meters at once.

And I know of an incident of a 22-year-old male sharing his meter with four friends. Each carried the meter a week at a time. But here’s the shocker: three of those five sharing one meter were women!

Get more details on the problems of sample accuracy here.

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Gaming PPM: Another Level of Phantom Listening

To keep TSL (Time Spent Listening) high and reduce the ratings shock of actual tune in times, most ratings companies allow stations to receive ratings credit when encoded audio is recorded within 24 hours of the original airing.

Typically, this includes audio-on-demand rebroadcasts on a website, social media or podcast.

Never mind that the respondent isn’t exposed to commercials that aired in the original broadcast. And never mind that advertising rates are based on ratings estimates, resulting in advertisers paying for ratings that don’t deliver ears.

Smart programmers have taken advantage of this Personal People Meter flaw. This loophole should be closed, but it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, if you want to play this part of the ratings game, get details on how to do it here.

Headphone Listening

As more consumers use personal devices to listen to media, headphones and earbuds make up a larger percentage of overall media time.

Yet, PPM technology cannot capture this listening. Imagine a meter carrying office worker turns on a station’s app each day for several hours and listens through her earbuds. The meter can’t “hear” the encoding, and no credit is recorded.

This is another argument in favor of Smartphone measurement. Presumably, listening via a station’s app on the Smartphone would be recorded.

Bias Against Spoken Word

Ratings companies claim this flaw has been fixed, and that could be true. For many years, analysis revealed that listeners as measured by PPM absolutely hated talk in all forms.

Spoken word formats and radio shows that played little to no music were punished severely in the ratings. Many assumed the meters reflected reality, and larger than life personalities may rate well in recalled listening, but not in real life.

It was later realized that ratings company decoders failed to record most listening to spoken word formats. The problem may have been solved, but there’s a hangover effect in programming. Many program directors continue to manage their brands as if the audience tunes out when the microphone turns on.


radio ratings diaryPPM Ratings using Personal People Meters are a step in the right direction. Capturing actual listening is far superior to the Diary methodology of basing ratings results on what users think they listen to. Recall has proven to be an unreliable method of measurement.

But there’s still a long way to go before radio finds a reliable, accurate and fair system to measure radio listening.

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The Components of Radio Ratings: Understanding The Math

Why Radio Ratings Sample Sizes Are So Low

Pros and Cons of PPM Ratings

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