Magazines more than doubled their paid digital circulation in the most recent reporting period, but print remains the overwhelming majority of their business, according to a new analysis by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Digital circulation soared to an estimated 3.29 million in the second half of 2011 from 1.46 million in the year-earlier period, a 125% increase, according to publishers' reports with the Audit Bureau.
Despite all that growth, however, digital remains about 1% of magazines' total paid and verified circulation.
Digital circulation is an increasing focus for magazines and for the Audit Bureau, whose board of directors earlier this month endorsed an expanded publisher's statement giving ad buyers additional information about digital. But two years after the Apple iPad created the tablet market, pulling Barnes & Noble and Amazon devices in after, it appears that print will remain publishers' core business for some time to come.
The top-line figures for digital include less individually paid circulation than typically seen in print and much more sponsored circulation -- paid for by businesses for promotional purposes. Individually paid circulation was just 24% of Maxim magazine's digital total in the second half, for example, and 25% of Seventeen's digital total.
But individually paid digital circulation is growing quickly, too.
"Early on for us it was much more about sampling the product and getting the product out there," said Ben Madden, president at Alpha Media Group, which publishes Maxim.
Maxim's individually paid digital circulation averaged 41,084 in the second half but had increased to 110,000 by the end of January, according to Mr. Madden. "This is becoming a really important part of our business, which makes sense for Maxim given the age breaks we're focused on," he said.
Hearst Magazines, which has predicted that its monthly digital circulation will top 1 million by year's end, said it won't need sponsored circulation to meet that mark.
"Part of the good news here is that paid digital for us is growing very quickly," said John Loughlin, exec VP and general manager at Hearst Magazines, which publishes titles including Seventeen, Esquire and Cosmopolitan.
Hearst's individually paid digital circulation averaged 289,000 copies in the second half but about 530,000 copies in the first quarter of 2012, said Mr. Loughlin, adding that Hearst is meeting its circulation promises to advertisers without relying on sponsored sales.
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said digital circulation grew to an estimated 3.29 million in the second half of 2012. The figure refers to the second half of 2011.