Once a sacred cow in the b-to-b media industry, the value of the old-fashioned print audit is being challenged these days.
Earlier this year, Questex Media, publisher of Travel Agent and American Salon, dropped BPA Worldwide, by far the most widely used auditing organization in b-to-b media, as its auditor and turned to Verified Audit Circulation. Although some observers have dismissed this move as a simple cost-cutting maneuver, the current questioning of the traditional print audit goes beyond the simple issue of cost. There often is a philosophy behind it.
“Revolutionary debates are taking place these days in the halls of major b-to-b trade publishers over whether or not the industry's truly iconic BPA controlled circulation print audits are still necessary,” wrote Outsell analyst Chuck Richard in a note he published earlier this year.
Richard said the debate is understandable given that in 2009 trade publishing print revenue will make up 35.9% of total global b-to-b media revenue, which is less than the 37.1% that electronic revenue will contribute. “Openness to exploring the issue [of audits] is a Rorschach ink blot test of how fully publishing executives have absorbed and accepted how much the ground has changed underneath them,” Richard concluded.
At Questex, Heidi Spangler, director- circulation and audience development, views her company's shift in auditors as a reflection of how the audience for media companies has changed to include e-newsletter subscribers, event attendees and Web site visitors. Her answer is a “brand audit” of the entire print, in-person and online audience for a brand, which is what Questex is trying to create with VAC.
Publishers are closely following the fallout, if any, of Questex's move from BPA to VAC. Spangler said there has been “surprisingly little” pushback from advertisers so far. “We're still being audited,” she said. “We have Verified, and that has not been a negative.”
“Questex's move was courageous,” said Steve Weitzner, CEO of Ziff Davis Enterprise. “We are a looking at a couple of audit alternatives, but we are looking with BPA.” ZDE is building a central database, and Weitzner wants to create an audit system that will show the value of the company's entire audience.
In January, PennWell Corp., publisher of Oil & Gas Journal, began work with BPA to develop the prototype of what the auditing organization is calling a “brand reach audit.” PennWell, which has discontinued BPA audits of several of its publications, including Industrial Lasers Solutions, asked the organization to create an audit for its Lightwave publication that would measure all the ways a reader or Web visitor could come in contact with the brand. The prototype includes measurement of the magazine's readership as well as of users who receive e-mail newsletters, download white papers and register for webinars.
This broader audit, which is expected to debut later this year, is an acknowledgement that b-to-b marketers and their advertising agencies want to know more about a brand's entire audience, not just the group reading the print magazine. “What we're showing is that [Lightwave] is far more than a magazine,” said Gloria Adams, PennWell's senior VP-audience development. “It's also a Web site; it's a trade show; it's an e-newsletter.”
The Audit Bureau of Circulations, which is known primarily for auditing consumer magazines and newspapers, has developed a multimedia audit for b-to-b publications that notes “total gross contacts” for a brand. These contacts include Web site unique visitors and e-newsletter subscribers. Among the publications using this new audit are Advanstar Communications' RN and McGraw-Hill Cos.' Engineering News-Record. “It's a very simple way of presenting our [total] audience in an authoritative manner,” said Maurice Persiani, McGraw-Hill's VP-business services.
Media buyers say they still want print audits, and they are beginning to embrace audits of Web sites, e-newsletters and other online properties.
“We need to make sure that publishers are actually reaching the people that they say they're reaching,” Vickie Szombathy, VP- media director at Spark Communications, said of audits. “It's as important as ever.”
Adams, however, is not entirely sure. She said PennWell participates in markets where marketers spend on advertisements in nonaudited books just as freely as they do in publications with paid audits. “If you ask [media buyers], they say, "Of course, [audits] are very important to me,' ” Adams said. “But when it comes down to where they spend their dollars, it doesn't seem so important anymore.” M