Readers are finding fewer magazines lying around doctors' offices and hair salons so far this year -- with exceptions such as Details, Reader's Digest and Ebony.
That's because magazines began the year by significantly pulling back on "verified" circulation, which includes public-place copies as well as certain free distribution to individuals.
Magazines cut verified circulation by 24.4% between the first half of 2010 and the first half of this year, the category's largest reduction since its introduction in 2006, according to their filings with the Audit Bureau of Circulations. That reduced verified to just 3.7% of titles' total paid and verified circulation, the channel's lowest level since it debuted at 3.6%.
In the second half of last year, by comparison, publishers ramped up verified circulation by 13.9%, the biggest increase yet, to make it 5% of the total, its highest level yet, according to the audit bureau.
(UPDATE: The reduction in waiting-room reading, however, won't be as dramatic as the 24.4% decline in verified suggests. Much of that drop resulted when Remedy magazine, whose verified circulation was sent to individuals and not public places, went online-only last year after appearing in the Audit Bureau's figures for the first half of 2010. Verified circulation among only the titles that filed with the Audit Bureau in time for its roundup on the first half of this year declined 2.1% from the first half of 2010.)
The recent reduction will probably make advertisers happy. Ad buyers are more interested in subscriptions and newsstand sales, figuring that paying readers are more engaged with a title and, buyers hope, its ads. But buyers don't mind distribution to public places, which gets more readers per copy and reaches potential new subscribers, as long as it remains a limited component, usually around 5% of total circulation, and doesn't suddenly become a crutch.
"When it is used strategically -- for instance, a fashion or beauty book in a beauty salon -- I do think that is a smart thing for them to do," said Brenda White, senior VP-publishing activation director at Starcom USA. "When I get worried is when I see that the spigot has been turned on and I didn't know that was part of the strategy."
"In most cases publishers have come to me and said, 'Hey, here's our strategy: We ended up doing a lot of verified and we're going to take it down again,'" Ms. White said. "I do think it's part of the strategy and I'm comfortable with that at a certain level. The ballpark is 5%."
Despite the general downward turn for verified circulation in the first half, however, some titles boosted its use significantly and crossed the 5% mark in the process. Details, for example, increased verified circulation 92%, to 8.9% of its total paid and verified circulation, up from 4.6% a year earlier. Without its verified circulation, Details would have missed the circulation it promises advertisers by 7.1%.
Reader's Digest ramped up verified by 155%, to 9% of its total from 3.3% a year earlier. Without its verified circulation, Reader's Digest would have missed its rate base for advertisers by 6.9%.
Ebony expanded verified 300%, to 8.1% from 2.2%; without verified, it would have missed rate base by 10% instead of 1.1%. And Guideposts increased verified 174%, to 9.9% from 3.6%; without verified, it would have missed rate base by 9.3%.
Reader's Digest pointed out that it delivered a bonus of 153,440 copies above its promise to advertisers, meaning it only needed some of its verified circulation to meet that promise, an amount equivalent to 6.5% of rate base -- not so far from buyers' 5% guideline.
"We are not being challenged by media buyers or clients, and it's not something that has come up in sales calls," Mark Josephson, VP-chief sales officer at Reader's Digest North America, said in an email through a spokesman.
Reader's Digest and Guideposts both also said copies in doctors' offices particularly help their pharmaceutical advertisers. "Let's not forget that a large, large percentage of our advertising is pharmaceutical," said Amy Molinero, VP-publisher at Guideposts. "What better place for our advertisers to be seen than right before they go to the doctor?"
Guideposts intends, however, to throttle back on public-place copies if it can. "When we can lower it, we will, because some advertisers don't want to pay for it," Ms. Molinero added. "And we want to appear as strong as we can possibly be. But it's not going to away for us. It's one of the ways we build awareness."
Ebony, which called in circulation consultants after missing rate base several reporting periods in a row, said it increased its verified circulation partly to promote its redesign and partly because it hadn't been taking advantage of the channel as much as its competitors. "Verified is part of every magazine's mix and strategy and we're no different," said Stephen Gregory Barr, senior VP-group publisher, Johnson Publishing. "But we did it in a very smart and strategic way. Like newsstand, insert cards, direct mail and renewals, this was part of a plan."
Details declined to comment.
The first-half statistics on verified circulation -- the 24.4% decline and its 3.7% share of total paid and verified circulation -- could change slightly as the Audit Bureau of Circulations accounts for magazines that did not file in time for its first-half roundup.