Magazines' New Rules for Counting Digital Sales

IPad Editions No Longer Need to Include Every Print Ad to Count Toward Circulation Guarantees

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Magazines can now count iPad and other digital-edition sales toward their paid-circulation guarantees even if those digital versions don't include the ads they carried in print, according to a new rule adopted by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the dominant arbiter of circulation for consumer magazines and newspapers.

That will let publishers take credit for their success on new platforms but means more work for media buyers, whose ads will increasingly appear in only a portion of each magazine's paid circulation count. "If the digital editions don't carry the same ads, then what is the purpose for me as an advertiser for the counting?" said Audrey Siegel, president and director of client services at TargetCast, an independent media agency.

Magazines' tablet circulation remains so small that this move could have waited for more discussion on new best practices, Ms. Siegel said. "I don't think it's the right time to make this change because I don't think that it is meaningful to anyone at this moment," she said. "It will be confusing and continue to make the print medium look like it's scrambling for circulation rather than taking a thoughtful approach to figuring out how to articulate the value of the tablet or the digital edition."

Publishers' statements to the Audit Bureau of Circulations will continue to break out print copies and digital editions, an audit bureau spokeswoman noted, so advertisers and media buyers will be able to see how each magazine achieved rate base.

Update: Advertisers in national print editions must also be given the option to run in the digital edition as well if publishers want to count that digital edition toward paid-circulation guarantees. So, for example, iPad editions that have a single ad sponsor will not qualify as digital replicas even under the new rules.

Tablet editions will eventually comprise 20% to 25% of paid circulation, Hearst Magazines President David Carey recently predicted. But Audit Bureau of Circulations rules until now have required tablet editions to carry the same ads as print if publishers want to report them as replica digital editions, meaning they can be counted toward paid circulation guarantees.

The rules didn't support today's landscape any longer, said Robin Steinberg, senior VP-director of publisher investment and activation at MediaVest USA as well as a member of the audit bureau's board, which unanimously approved the rule change. "The publishing area is becoming increasingly digitized. The rules need to evolve."

That evolution won't be simple, Ms. Steinberg acknowledged. "Today it's complicated," she said. "Tomorrow it's going to become even more complicated."

"We need to move the industry forward," she added. "Unfortunately, initially it's going to result in additional, unnecessary work for the buyers as there might be confusion to understand where your ad was placed. Print only? Digital only? Or both?"

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