When the announcement dropped from News Corp yesterday morning, I wasn’t sure whether to feel angry or depressed. But I certainly wasn’t surprised.
Effectively, magazine audit transparency is dead.
Australia is about to become the only major English language speaking market in the world where publisher claims about circulations will go unchecked.
The move by Bauer Media last Thursday, rapidly followed by rival publisher News Corp on Monday, to drop out of the magazine audits feels very much like a calculated plan by publishers to kill the Audited Media Association of Australia, or at the very least its magazine print arm.
The timing of just before Christmas is not a coincidence. It means that there is unlikely to be a meaningful backlash from industry bodies – even if they had it in them – until it is too late.
And the fact that both jumped within two working days of each other means they must have been working on this together.
Instead, all that remains for the industry will be readership surveys, which by their very nature, can never hold magazine publishers to account in the way that making them prove circulation claims would.
Mystery shopper: Magazine sales number will no longer be available
The part that makes me angry about all this isn’t the actions of the publishers – it’s the fact that they know they’ll be able to get away with it.
If they anticipated that advertisers and media agencies would object to such an anti-transparency strategy they’d never try it on. For this to go on without an uproar from advertisers, shows just how supine they have become on such issues.
Indeed, I don’t blame the publishers at all.
The data that emerges from the Audited Media Association of Australia every quarter, has for nearly a decade contained more bad news for publishers than good.
Once upon a time, this ABC data was an excellent marketing opportunity. It was a chance for publishers to talk about the performance of their weekly titles every quarter, and their monthlies twice a year. For many years there were more winners than losers.
But when consumers began to stop buying, the ABC numbers became a quarterly reminder to the market that magazines were on the slide.
If I was a publisher, I can see why I’d wondering why I was paying an annual fee to remind the market that my core product was in trouble. So I honestly don’t know I’d do it any differently.
I’m sure it was the same reasoning behind Fairfax Media’s decision to pull out of the audit of its digital subscribers after they started falling.
By contrast, the readership surveys deliver stability and good news – the methodology ensures that.
The not-particularly-knowledgeable marketer or media agency staffer – and unfortunately there are plenty of them – may well draw the wrong conclusion about their campaign based on readership data.
Let’s say you’ve placed an ad in a magazine.
With circulation data, you knew exactly how many people had bought that mag, taken it home and, it’s fair to assume, read it thoroughly as they’ve spent their own money on it.
With readership data, somebody standing in a coffee shop may flick through a title for 30 seconds while they await their latte. Asked if they recall reading the mag in the last month, they’d now count as a reader.
The reason Mumbrella has always covered the audit’s numbers and has never regularly covered the two readership surveys, from the publisher-created EMMA (Enhanced Media Metrics Australia) and Roy Morgan Research, is because we don’t really believe the numbers accurately portray the picture.
We don’t think think they’re made up, but they don’t make sense in how they are presented and used.
The example that made me struggle to believe was Bauer’s now dead Zoo magazine. In its dying throes, it’s apparent average readership was more than 15 people per copy, when you compared the audited circulation numbers with the claimed readership numbers. For a weekly, that just didn’t make sense – certainly not as a headline number.
Zoo: Please wipe for the next reader
Take a look at the websites of both Roy Morgan Research and EMMA. You won’t find (unless you do better than me) anything resembling their definition of reader, or the question they ask.
But if it was the number of people over a given month who thought they may have glanced at any copy (and remember, this is based on recall not reality) then you can see how the number can be both entirely accurate and entirely misleading.
But the publishers would now like advertisers and agencies to plan media schedules on this basis.
And yet, as I say, none of this is a surprise. My colleague Miranda Ward predicted as much just six weeks ago.
And of course the AMAA is a long way from perfect. It fell a long way behind on digital over a long period of time.
But it always provided a very good sanity check against the potential vanity metric of readership.
But the argument that the reason for pulling out is because of a desire for a holistic number across all media just doesn’t stack up. If publishers wanted that, they could have mandated and enabled the AMAA to do it. They’re on the board, after all.
Particularly in Bauer’s case where its digital strategy is about its ‘To Love’ verticals, not individual mastheads.
Readership metrics are a useful planning tool for the advertiser – and for the publisher a useful sales tool.
By contrast, audits allow the advertiser to be confident that the publisher isn’t stealing from them by lying about how many copies are circulated.
Instead, Australia’s magazines are now about to go from among the most transparent media to one of the least.
I don’t think it will achieve for Bauer and NewsLife Media its aim, by the way. I agree with commenter Jeremy on yesterday’s story:
Bauer and News are doing magazines huge damage by doing this
An AMAA audit costs next to nothing
Why pull out? They’re trying to go opaque to advertisers
Readership research is notoriously inaccurate
Circulation is the only real metric between print and online
It’s the most real metric in media all up probably. It’s point to point with no bs in between like panels, or in the case of online, a million ways to trick your traffic and engagement
And the print guys are dumping it and exiting for the door that says ‘ blind them with same bullshit that online people do’
Mags managed the right way are a cut-through medium now
Not if don’t measure them though
Bauer and News will ultimately suffer as a result
Pac Mags is hopefully laughing
But I guess we should wait and see
Jeremy’s right. There’s a huge opportunity for PacMags to be the point of difference in the market. If you were an advertiser and two of the three buying points couldn’t prove how many copies they print, the third option would be attractive.
Except of course that PacMags is rumoured to be for sale, with Bauer a likely buyer. So I wouldn’t be betting on it.
Instead the withdrawal feels like the magazine industry surrendering. We won’t witness quite as closely the death throes of print magazines. But it’s also going to reduce their visibility to the market in a world where your average 22-year-old media buyer is already out of the magazine purchase habit.
It also feels like the AMAA has lost the magazine circulation battle. And it’s losing ground on its digital audits.
Which just leaves newspaper circulation. Given the common ownership – News Corp owns NewsLifeMedia for instance – how long until newspaper audits go the same way?
If News Corp and Fairfax Media see the market tolerate the ending of magazine audits, the dropping of newspaper audits will be just around the corner too.
Which is shortsighted when they provide reassurance for marketers – who seem to trust the AMAA numbers above most others.
As I say, I’ve never felt completely comfortable with the readership numbers from Roy Morgan or EMMA, which is why we’ve been sparing in how we’ve reported them.
But once readership is the only game in town, Mumbrella will have to reassess, too. If you were on a boat in the 18th Century and most of the maps blew overboard, you’d still be glad to have the one remaining sketch.
I suspect that 2017 will be the year that Mumbrella starts writing about readership. I’m depressed, but not surprised.
December 22 update: PacMags withdrew from the audit too. So that’s that.