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Where do you keep your mobile phone while you are watching television? Chances are that your handheld device sits next to you on the couch, or is in the same room at least. That is one consumer habit that Hitesh Chawla and Mudit Seth are exploiting. Their start-up SilverPush has launched a technology that enables your idiot box to talk to your mobile. It can identify the commercials that you may be watching on your television with the help of your mobile.

How this works is pretty simple. SilverPush embeds an audio beacon into the commercials, which is quietly captured by some of the apps that you may have downloaded on your phone. As a consumer, you are not aware that one of the apps is reading the advertisement running on your TV.

The interaction between the offline and online devices generates a wealth of information which is useful to the advertiser and his agency.

The ownership of the mobile lets the advertiser know in which city the ad was watched, which channel it was watched on and at what time, which creative was seen (in case there are multiple creatives in the campaign) and what kind of device captured the viewing of the commercial. In short, a rough profile of the user is made available.

Chawla, the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, alumnus who created the technology, does not divulge the names of the apps the technology is embedded in but claims that the company is working with several advertisers, from automobile companies to soaps and e-commerce firms to beverage brands.

The information helps the advertiser target consumers better. Television advertising, projected at 17,460 crore in 2015, is expected to touch 29,910 crore in 2019 after expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 14.1%, according to a report released last month by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) and consulting firm KPMG. That money is allocated to different channels, based on television viewership data available to the industry.

Right now, it’s sort of a cloudy period for audience measurement. TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd, India’s sole audience measurement company until recently, is being edged out by the joint industry body Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) at the end of this month.

BARC was formed after broadcasters complained of inaccuracies and anomalies in data provided by TAM, a joint venture between consumer insights firm Nielsen and Kantar Media, owned by WPP Plc., the London-based advertising company.

Experts say that BARC is investing a couple of hundred crores into the new system.

So, isn’t a technology like SilverPush smarter and cheaper to figure out who is watching what on television, considering its founders Seth and Chawla admit that it can be used to monitor programmes as well? The two have already made presentations to channels. The audio beacon can be embedded in the TV shows for the benefit of broadcasters.

To be sure, even BARC uses watermarking, which is sound-based, permanently embedded in channels and can be captured by its meters. The meters can capture time-shifted viewing as well. For starters, BARC is putting in place 14,000 meters that it plans to slowly increase. Another 6,000 meters will be devoted to rural coverage in the near future.

SilverPush claims it already monitors 18 million smartphones with the help of six-seven apps it has tied up with. The company, funded by Ronnie Screwvala’s venture capital fund Unilazer, IDG Ventures, and 500 Startups, a global tech start-up accelerator and investment programme, was incorporated in 2012, although the technology was launched in April last year.

Broadcasters say that SilverPush is not the only company that is engaged in television monitoring solutions of this nature. Several companies in a similar space have approached them with proposals, they add.

Will start-ups like SilverPush make the television viewership measurement system as we know it passé? Will BARC and TAM, currently quarrelling over their rating systems, be overtaken by new technologies?

A BARC member who’s had a brush with these technologies claims they are limited, since they offer information only on individuals. Even if they give information about 100,000 people, it is not possible to get patterns out of it, he argues; that’s something which traditional market research offers.

To translate that complaint into market research lingo, the BARC worthy is saying the samples are not representative.

That is debatable. And even if it is a problem, it is one that is easily fixed.

The other criticism is that such technologies are reaching just one section of the audience, that is, the mobile user. But let’s not forget that the mobile user today is the most sought-after consumer. After all, India is the world’s fastest growing smartphone market. At the end of 2014, the country had around 116 million Internet-enabled smartphones and the number is expected to reach 435 million by 2019, according to the Ficci-KPMG report. “With eyeballs shifting from print and television to online media, the second screen phenomenon has become a reality that cannot be ignored," the report said.

That simply means that phone-based audience measurement technologies such as SilverPush can’t be wished away.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing, and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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