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Zoom Media used Nielsen Research to find out who was watching its ads in gyms, in an effort to help advertisers target their commercials at a specific audience. Above, a Toronto fitness club with ad screens from Zoom Media, April 5, 2012.Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail

Even if you turn off the TV, log off Facebook, and leave the house, advertisers are talking to you everywhere. They've got you in the back of a taxi and in your office elevator. They'll even catch you with you pants down, in a toilet stall or a mall fitting room.

Now they'd like to know who you are.

The companies that sell out-of-home "place-based" advertising – ads in indoor public spaces such as malls, restaurants, university campuses, and office buildings – are finding more ways to speak to consumers every minute of their day. But this small slice of the ad industry is fighting an uphill battle for legitimacy, competing in a world obsessed with highly measurable, targeted digital ads. And there is a new push to recruit a well-known ally in that fight: Nielsen.

Zoom Media, which sells ads in restrooms and elsewhere, has just begun using Nielsen to measure demographics of the people who see its ads, in an effort to give media buyers the ability to target their campaigns. It's only the second company in Canada to do so; Captivate Network, which runs a network of screens that run ads in office tower elevators, was the first.

Zoom is pushing the rest of the indoor advertising industry to consider a new measurement standard.

"Out of home is usually the last to get planned and the first to get cut," said Cathy Fernandes, Zoom Media's president and chief operating officer. "But if we're able to justify who we reach and how valuable we are, we may be able to justify our place in that strategy.

"If we can get the entire industry to look at this methodology, we can slice off bigger chunks of the media spend."

Zoom also sells indoor advertising products in the U.S., where it began using the same Nielsen measurement system in 2009. Many other indoor advertising companies there do the same; Canada is lagging behind the U.S. in developing targeted measurement for "place-based" advertising.

For these companies, being recognized by media buyers is a struggle. The entire out-of-home advertising market in Canada – indoor as well as outdoor advertising such as billboards – was worth roughly $480-million last year, or 4.4 per cent of the total media spend.

But while it is small, it is a growing medium. The amount of indoor advertising in Canada has exploded in recent years. A lot of that growth is coming from more dynamic, digital screens. Take Newad, which also sells indoor advertising in washrooms, eateries, fitness clubs and elsewhere, and had roughly 600 digital screens in its network this time last year. Now it has more than 3,000, and its total indoor network counts more than 20,000 advertising faces across Canada.

Just over a year ago, media and advertising conglomerate the Jim Pattison Group added to its Pattison Outdoor business with the acquisition of Toronto-based Onestop Media Group, which has a network of digital signs in retail spaces, hotels and malls.

The industry is becoming more fragmented, with smaller companies also finding spaces to set up shop with indoor advertising products.

"There's just an explosion in new media out there in the indoor, out-of-home category," said Karen Best, president of industry group the Canadian Out-of-Home Measurement Bureau.

COMB already measures who sees indoor ads. It uses a system called Traffik, developed by Newad. But while COMB effectively measures ad impressions – counting specific numbers of viewers – it does not focus on audience demographics.

Even Newad, with its stake in the standard of measurement it created, sees the need for a new system in Canada.

"We're in discussions with Zoom to use the same models, and in discussions with COMB to bring in another form of measurement," said Michael Reha, president and CEO of Newad.

"There's definitely an interest on our part. And also a strong interest on the part of our clients to have stronger targeting and measurement."

Newad also invested in a demographic measurement system called Target, but because the tracking is done in-house, it does not have the same weight with clients as a third-party, audited organization such as Nielsen.

"With indoor, to date, we've been kind of going on a wing and a prayer," said Jeanne Northcote, managing director at media buyer Mediacom Canada. Media buyers are hungry for better targeted measurement in the indoor category, she said. "If all the suppliers would use it, it would give us a common base. …As we get into more and more channel optimization – and we're talking video here – a source of revenue for them will be dollars that used to be in television. But it's hard to yank things out of television without saying to clients where it's going."

For starters, Zoom used the Nielsen research only for its fitness centre network. Zoom operates a closed channel just for gyms, to play on TV screens. Nielsen measured Zoom's network by measuring traffic through the fitness centres in raw numbers, and then painted a picture of that audience through surveys of gym attendees. Crucially, it provided socio-demographic details on those viewers.

The survey tracked buying habits of the people who saw the ads, their average income, media consumption habits, and other demographic details.

Captivate has also been able to offer advertisers better targeting information about its audience since it brought the Nielsen measurement system to Canada in 2009. Before using Nielsen, Captivate had simply tracked its audience by building counts; but it did not account for visitors taking the elevators to those offices, or how many of them actually looked at the screen. Nielsen's surveys did that. And Nielsen tracks the demographics of the people who saw it.

"We go almost a little overboard on the research. But because we don't fit in any traditional media bucket, we want to prove ourselves," said Charles Vachon, Captivate's vice-president of sales for the Canadian region. "It helps pull away any fog that any media planners may have as well."

Other players have been hesitant to jump on board before an industry standard is set, but are considering the move.

"Nielsen knows broadcast measurement, thus they are trying to apply that same thinking to indoor digital networks," said Bob Leroux, the vice-president and general manager, Central region, for Pattison Outdoor Advertising LP. "We are investigating this topic, too," he said.

The indoor advertising industry in Canada is still evolving. It is much more fragmented than outdoor, which is dominated by a few larger players.

"Key to all of this is the trust you have with the client," said Mr. Reha of Newad "Clients are asking for more and more data, and you're competing with the online market, which provides a lot of data. They're expecting more."