Stop asking if we have a future and start asking how we measure it

The fact that total number of copies ending up in consumers’ hands is relative stable (down 0.2 per cent year on year in the last release) is ignored and glossed over by headlines that pose such questions as “Do we have too many free titles?” 

This question always amuses me to no end because I’ve never heard anyone question the value of free to air radio and TV channels, search giants like Google or the social media darlings that have cost brands an arm and a leg to come to grips with. But that is a rant for a different article. 

With each ABC release publishers are forced to assess and defend their print performance while humbly pointing out that the latest set of figures, of course, does not paint the full picture of our reach and vitality.  What I always find astounding is that the very measurement tools used as the key indicators of our industry’s vitality hardly ever undergo the same level of scrutiny or criticism for its failure to evolve. Isn’t it time we stop asking whether the magazine media industry has a future and start asking how we accurately measure it instead?

Now I’m quite sure that these will be interpreted as fighting words and as criticism being levelled at the ABC and other measurement organisations, and to a degree it is. I do need to point out that in this statement I am leaving myself wide open to a rather appropriate accusation of pot, kettle, black as I have worked quite closely with the ABC over the years and have even given one of their multi-platform products aimed at the business media market my endorsement.

So I do not want to subtract for one minute from the hard and consistently reliable work the ABC does to provide the key metric used by buyers and sellers of print advertising because as a heritage print trading tool it still does a phenomenal job. 

But that also sums up the problem; it remains a heritage print trading tool. Yes, I know that ABC has gone to great lengths to evolve into a service which audits all activities publishers engage in, but the default association and application of ABC remains centred on auditing print sales and although print remains a firm anchor to magazine media brands, and in most cases still a profitable one at that, it is no longer what defines us. 

In less than a decade magazine media has transformed itself almost unrecognisably into multi-platform businesses. In the process we played catch-up with online, we’ve learned how to build great websites, we’ve come to grips with creating digital editions and at the moment we are delivering explosive growth in mobile audiences and video channels. The key challenge magazine media face now is no longer about how we adapt to the digital age, our challenge now is getting the measurement systems or tools in place which can showcase and report on the true scope and reach of its work. 

Fortunately there are some encouraging signs that a solution is within reach. The Association of Magazine Media (MPA) in the US launched a new reporting tool called Media 360 last year. It draws on various syndicated sources and strives to present a single view on the total reach of magazine media brands and that of the industry. 

It’s not a perfect solution, nor is it a single source solution, but it does something no other tool does: it shows the performance of magazine brands across every major channel it operates on side by side and then moves on to create a Total 360 figure, a single number that shows gross reach across all channels. It doesn’t try to mask declines in print readership but it also clearly shows that losses in print are more than compensated for in gains on mobile and video audience growth. 

So far all of their reports have shown that the magazine media industry in the US is growing in reach, not declining when you look at it from this perspective. 

But the holy grail of proving our growth lies in creating a single source measurement tool which accurately reports net audience reach across all platforms. In order to become truly single source, such as a measurement system face a complex (and expensive) challenge as it will likely need to employ a combination of face to face and online interviews to establish print readership, in combination with an online panel which will track these same readers’ online behaviour. 

There is no definitive winner on this front yet, but a number of national readership surveys are considering approaches that aim to deliver a solution. Announcements on this front are due later this year. A successful run at creating such a system would represent a significant pivot point for the industry because it will for the first time, enable an accurate discussion about the vitality and direction of the industry with the necessary data to back it up. 

Until then, any pronouncement about the health of the industry based on tools which only report on one element of it, should be dismissed for the foolish chatter that it is. 

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