The Internet’s bolt from cyberspace into the mass market was underscored by last week’s announcement that Nielsen Media Research, home of the TV audience-measuring people meter, has teamed with San Francisco-based Internet Profiles Corp. (I-PRO) to measure audiences and sell the data.

The goal of the Nielsen/I-PRO alliance is “to achieve industry standards that will benefit all commercial users,” said David Harkness, senior VP and head of Internet activities for Nielsen.

About 20 million home owners of personal computers with modems form one sector of a market that counts as many as 40 million potential online viewers globally. Commercial online services such as CompuServe and America Online count 7 million subscribers.

Fortune 500 clients

Nielsen will co-market the services with I-PRO in addition to taking a small financial stake in the year-old company. Among the 40 clients already signed on with I-PRO are Chrysler Corp., CMP Publications, CompuServe, Xerox, Netscape Communications and Yahoo! Corp.

“You’re dealing in a universe where there are no standard audience-measurement techniques,” said Sheri Herman, president of Prophecy, the interactive division of ad house Fattal & Collins, which is responsible for “The Spot,” an episodic webshow on the Net. “I-PRO has developed a way of talking about the audience that seems to be making sense to Madison Avenue, and that’s what counts.”

Measuring usage of promotional sites, such as those being established in increasing numbers by Hollywood studios on the Internet’s audiovisual area known as the World Wide Web, is an inexact science. Computer servers carrying web sites record page hits, which are widely reported as indications of a web site’s popularity.

Page hits

“The Spot,” which has been designated “Cool Site of the Year” by Yahoo!, a Net directory, currently boasts as many as 100,000 page hits per day by its own count.

But one person logging briefly onto a site may generate as many as 30 page hits, or separate inquiries.

Indeed, some web site producers warn that measurement methodologies will have to take into account a recent trend toward entertainment programming such as “The Spot,” where viewers may spend some time, as opposed to purely promotional sites that are considered “click-throughs” by web browsers.

“The quality of usage is a big issue for entertainment producers,” said Herman at Prophecy, which is preparing the first linked network of episodic webshows. “We’ll be looking to I-PRO to provide information that is important to the interactive experience.”

Technology developed by I-PRO is designed to discern individual perusals of web sites and provide third-party reports with qualitative data about web users.

“The fact that they are tied in with Nielsen gives them instant credibility, not only on the consumer side but on the business-to-business side,” said David Yoder, media director of Anderson & Lembke, an ad agency with clients such as Microsoft and Autodesk currently using I-PRO.

“The problem operationally has been to get third-party reporting,” said Tom Phillips, VP of online for Starwave, which offers ESPNet Sportzone, the largest publishing service on the Net, which is charging mid-six-figure sums for ad contracts from names like Gatorade and Lincoln Mercury. “No one is doubting our own numbers now, but in time it becomes a loaded issue.”

Nielsen inroads

Nielsen already has launched a major demographic study that will canvass 3,000 U.S. and Canadian households by phone to gauge Internet usage.

Advertisers on Wired magazine’s popular Hotwired web site are receiving data from Nielsen on viewers. Nielsen also signed recently with ASI Market Research and Yankelovich to pursue methodologies for monitoring Internet usage.

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