NO LIMIT TO NEW MAG READERSHIP STUDY; PAPER CHASE: BUT CHOSEN CATEGORIES IN ABC PROGRAM STILL NOT KNOWN

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Response rates in a world with Caller ID and answering machines is a problem the research industry is beginning to address, says Jayne Spittler, global media research director at Starcom Worldwide, Chicago.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations will introduce a magazine readership test to mirror its Newspaper Reader Profile service division created to audit newspaper readership surveys.

The business plan for the new division was approved in July at ABC's annual board meeting. The service division has sparked interest in a similar opportunity for magazines.

WIDER THAN OTHER STUDIES

Unlike the Media Research Institute and Simmons Market Research Bureau, which limit their studies to a set number of publications, an ABC audit for the industry would apply the across-the-board, all-inclusive approach of the newspaper reports to any magazine.

Ms. Spittler, who sat on the ABC's new service planning board, says the magazine research would be gathered and reported in the same way ABC's newspaper readership data are gathered.

At this time, however, it's not clear what categories would be included for magazines.

The newspaper readership audits call for a standardized gathering process and detail 11 demographic breakdowns, such as age, education and gender. This is significant, because newspaper readership studies -- conducted independently -- can vary widely and frustrate media buyers trying to weigh the pros and cons of placing in one market over another.

ROOM FOR NICHE DATA

Ms. Spittler says the fact that magazines are far more disparate than newspapers in their content and audience will not be a hindrance to ABC. Though one title may have an upscale audience and another may target a younger, less-affluent reader, she says, a study would focus on core comparable data while still leaving room for optional niche-specific information.

The newspaper study went through a beta-test at The Times in Shreveport, La., last year and was expanded to include eight newspapers of varying size and locality in January.

John Payne, senior VP of strategic planning at ABC, says the experiment taught the association how to handle a variety of readership scenarios. It will employ the same caution as it rolls out the service to more newspapers this fall.

With a staff of five, the service initially will be available to 25 to 30 members for a fee of $7,500.

Mr. Payne anticipates the staff and the number of studies it handles will grow.

ROLLING OUT SLOWLY

"The number of [newspaper] audits we can do is constrained by the fact that we have to hire and train staff to do this," he says. "Going through this experience for the first time -- both for us and the newspaper -- is a more time consuming process than [it will be] the second or third time. So we're going to roll this out in a deliberately careful fashion to make certain we can handle it."

ABC already has learned much from its foray into readership research, particularly some of the difficulties involved in gathering data from phone interviews over a four-week period.

Bob Oney, market research director of Raleigh, N.C.'s 157,000-circulation News & Observer, a beta-test site, says that though he was pleased with the results of the study and thought the information-gathering process went very smoothly, he didn't get the response rate he desired.

"We wanted 40%, we came in at 35%," he says. "You can milk the thing to death and keep calling and calling and calling back the people you haven't been able to get in touch with for an interview, but there's a point of no return on that. I'm not displeased or surprised by that. It's just the realities of the world -- getting people to agree to be interviewed and stay on the phone for 25 to 30 minutes."

PROBLEMS WITH STUDY

Indeed, many of the other studies' response rates came in at around 40% or below.

Beverly Barnum, corporate director of research with E.W. Scripps Co., publisher of beta-test site the Knoxville News Sentinel, says she takes issue with some of the information the study failed to gather. The audit reports pass-along and single-copy readership, which could go far in helping papers attract more insert advertising for single-copy sales, she says. It also has an optional section for including other miscellaneous data. But, it doesn't report on occasional readership, which she says is a growing phenomenon.

"It doesn't give you anything if you're not a past-week reader," she says. "It's my feeling that there are growing numbers of Americans who look at the paper every other week or once a month, and ABC's methodology will not capture these people."

In general, says David Daugherty, director of research services for Gannett Co., the service "gives newspapers the opportunity to have their market research legitimized so our advertisers have confidence that the findings are in fact accurate. We can can better describe our entire audience to advertisers."

LEARNING ABOUT PRESENTATION

Another study committee member, Terry Prill, newspaper strategist manager for department store owner Dayton Hudson Corp., stresses that the shape of the study is not set in stone as ABC learns more about the best way to present readership information.

"It will evolve, as most things do," she says.

That evolution process is likely to affect the magazine effort, as well.

"We have to be careful that in an age of continual fragmentation and niches in media -- which is really helpful to us as advertisers -- -- that we don't shut that down and insist everybody be homogenized," says Starcom's Ms. Spittler. "And maybe that's one of our biggest challenges, to find some level of comparability while at the same time encouraging all the diversity that's out

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