Can magazines prove that their ads make cash registers ring? In its latest attempt to prove its worth to marketers, Time Inc. will regularly gauge the retail sales results from advertising in its titles and on its websites.
"There was a call for getting more solutions to advertisers so they could see their return on investment," said Stephanie George, exec VP and CMO at Time Inc., "so we're increasing our footprint in the research area."
The program closely follows a move by rival Meredith Corp. to guarantee certain advertisers that major campaigns in its pages will actually increase sales by certain amounts. And Meredith 's effort came soon after Time Inc. started guaranteeing some advertisers that their print campaigns will deliver results like ad recall among a certain number of readers. Some independent magazines have been making similar assurances since last year.
Advertising in magazines still revolves around paid circulation, publishing's traditional, very rough proxy for ad effectiveness. But marketers' growing need to justify their spending, competition from digital media and the difficult economy are fueling increasing efforts to do better.
That doesn't mean the new measures are perfect. They don't try to compare results, for example, across competing magazine publishers.
"What I think is needed is a standardized and syndicated audience-measurement performance tool," said Michael Clinton, publishing director and president for marketing at Hearst Magazines as well as chairman at the MPA, the magazine industry's trade association.
But ad buyers -- the chief target for these efforts -- are enthusiastic about their direction and accelerating pace. "What happened with the economy and what happened to our publishing industry, coupled with where the consumer has been heading for a long time, got the industry to take a step back and realize they've got to think differently about their business," said Brenda White, senior VP-publishing activation director at Starcom USA.
Starcom MediaVest Group is Time Inc.'s partner on the Alliance for Magazine Accountability, the slightly earlier but ongoing project to promise certain advertisers that certain numbers of people will recall their ad campaigns or take action on them.
Time Inc.'s new program, which it calls Time Inc. PinPoint, is especially interesting because it addresses online advertising, not just pages in the company's core print editions, Ms. White added. "I've been on my soapbox about needing granular measurement, and about thinking of brands, not just the printed page," she said.
"We've been looking for creative solutions that can measure the true impact of advertising in all the media we play in," said Paul Caine, exec VP-chief revenue officer at Time Inc., whose magazines include People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Time . "It's another step forward toward providing full metrics for our advertisers."
Time Inc. PinPoint combines detailed shopper data from Nielsen Catalina Solutions with Time Inc.'s own databases, attempting to control for factors beyond the ad campaign at hand, to see how retail sales, brand loyalty, purchase frequency and other metrics changed for those who saw the ads. "The results are all based on actual exposure and actual sales," Mr. Caine said. "That takes into account whether a product is excellent on its own or has other stimulus."
Like Meredith 's sales-lift guarantee, Time Inc.'s new program is focused on consumer packaged goods at this point. Where Meredith limited participation to 10 corporate clients that meet certain requirements, such as typically spending over $5 million annually with the company's magazines, PinPoint will be open to a broader pool of marketers. But they will have to advertise at least enough to make the research and its conclusions statistically sound, according to Time Inc. and Nielsen Catalina.
For a monthly magazine, that would probably mean running the same campaign in multiple titles for at least three months. On the digital side, a campaign might need 60 million impressions.
"There's a lot of noise in the data, but you should be able to see an effect in theory, if you have a big enough ad spend," said one magazine executive outside Time Inc. "And of course that 's the whole point, from an ad seller's point of view. It's an interesting business proposition but it requires that marketers believe that they're ultimately going to get their best media exposures in that company's magazines."
Initiatives to improve industry metrics will be a subject at meetings and panels during the American Magazine Conference this week. "There is heightened interest in the topic," Mr. Clinton said. "And there are multiple initiatives in the works to find different solutions."
There are also other ways to deliver accountability in the meantime. Hearst often encourages marketers to run ads including "digital enablers" -- URLs, 2-D barcodes, calls to interact on Facebook or Twitter -- that give readers a next step easily tracked by marketers and publishers. It's also assembled three big marketing programs this fall, including a partnership with jewelry brand Hearts on Fire that gives Hearst a fee for every purchase generated -- thereby giving Hearst a direct stake in the program's success.