On Sunday, the Super Bowl game flickered across 25 flat-screen TVs scattered throughout the headquarters of iSpot.tv. About 80 employees furiously typed away on their keyboards. But their attention wasn't on the game itself--it was all about the commercials.
"It's a fun night for us here," said Jeanna Wilkes, the company's director of product. "It's also pretty intense."
Founded in 2012, iSpot is a startup that measures commercials' reach and online engagement--all in real-time. Sean Muller, the former CTO of content creation platform Demand Studios, founded the company based on what he perceived to be an area of opportunity. "The $70 billion TV ad industry was literally devoid of information online," he says. "The entire industry was being traded on data that was six to eight weeks old and massively inaccurate."
A new solution for actionable measurement
For decades, Nielsen has been the industry standard for digital ad measurement. But for advertisers, that data only tells part of the story. These days, viewers can watch those same commercials on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and then share or chat about them across various social platforms.
So Muller set out to find a solution using modern-day technology. To capture television metrics, iSpot collects viewership information from smart TVs, and then uses a set of formulas to extrapolate it across the general population. It also tracks other activities, like YouTube views, Facebook likes, and Twitter mentions.
ISpot's customers include tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, as well as some of the nation's largest retailers, soda brands, and automakers. The company consolidates the data, then breaks it out into useful categories: How far into the ad does the average viewer watch before changing the channel? How many have searched the internet for that ad? What demographics are most likely to share it on social media? Using a dashboard, companies can compare results to other brands in their industry, or to the advertising world as a whole.
ISpot's most critical event
Super Bowl night is the company's busiest event. Employees will tap each other in as they head off for bathroom breaks; others will sprint across the office to deliver information about previously unannounced ad spots.
At one brief point during a commercial break, the office's TVs cut to black, causing a few seconds of panic and yelling. When the picture came back on, things became calm again.
ISpot's data crunch determines which brands really won the Super Bowl. Last year, for example, the two biggest winners--in terms of viewership and online engagement--were Netflix's Stranger Things trailer and Budweiser's commercial, which featured a young adult Adolphus Busch emigrating from Germany.
This year's winners
This year, the startup measured a few star-studded standouts: an Amazon ad in which Alexa loses her voice and gets replaced by Anthony Hopkins and Cardi B; a joint Mountain Dew-Doritos campaign highlighting a rap battle between Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage; and a Tourism Australia spot starring Danny McBride, Hugh Jackman, Margot Robbie, and Russell Crowe.
All those brands built considerable momentum by airing online teasers in the days leading up to Sunday. Some commercials that lacked any pre-game buzz ended up lighting the internet aflame: a surprise teaser trailer for Solo, the newest installment in the Star Wars franchise, earned more than 2 million online views and 130,000 social actions by 9 a.m. Monday, with the NFL's campaign featuring Eli Manning dancing with Odell Beckham, Jr. not far behind.
How iSpot maintains focus, speed, and accuracy
During the game, Wilkes's team scoured the internet for social media chatter about a given ad. Throughout the year, commercials that appear on TV get inputted into iSpot's tracking system within about 30 minutes. But during the game, the team strives to have results delivered to advertisers within a minute.
"Usually we use a lot of automated processes, but during the game we've made it semi-automated," Muller said. "We have teams watching the ads in real time and entering key metadata as quickly as possible." That way, iSpot can teach its system to search for combinations of words like "Solo" and "trailer," "commercial," or "movie" to measure the online chatter about the ad.
ISpot has raised $28 million from investors including Insight Venture Partners and Madrona Venture Group. Most of its 130 employees are based in the company's Bellevue, Washington offices--a location that has caused employee distraction in the past, like when the Seattle Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl in 2014 and 2015. Luckily, there was less emotional investment in the game this year, with the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots going to battle.
"Although," Wilkes said with a laugh, "one of our employees is a die-hard Patriots fan. I was sure to give him a lower-level role this year."