HIGH PRICE TO PAY

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How badly do they want it?

In theory, "wantedness" is marketers' Holy Grail of reader accountability. And many say the best way to measure it currently is by average price paid for subscriptions.

"It's not the total story," says Michael Browner, executive director-media and marketing operations at General Motors Corp. "But it's the easiest thing to measure right now."

A mere mention of "wantedness" rarely fails to evoke heated comments from magazine executives. But a better way of knocking down its value is to point out, as some publishers do, that the "average price paid" statistic can be manipulated fairly easily and in ways that bring in the least desirable readers of all.

If a publisher wants to jack up average subscription price, the fastest way to do it is to opt for a quick call to what are called "cash field agents," who supply subscriptions for a price-albeit with no guarantees of where those readers are or what they may do to a magazine's demographics. Renewal rates of such subscriptions are virtually non-existent.

Another means: stop selling long-term subscriptions, which often involve getting extra years at a slightly discounted rate. Or sell eight copies, rather than 12, for a year's subscription price. Both techniques ultimately drive up average price paid. They also significantly increase circulation costs, executives say.

The first wave of a multiyear study, released last October by the Magazine Publishers of America, found no correlation between price paid and reader involvement. The research, called the "Reader Experience Study" and conducted by Northwestern University, has thus far elicited a wary response from many advertisers. They're reserving judgment until more detailed data covering specific magazine categories are released.

Still, some media buyers are stepping back from linking wantedness to the average-price-paid figure.

"We do not spend a whole lot of time with average price paid. We haven't found it to be, yet, a really useful thing to look at," says Karen Jacobs, exec VP-print at Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group, Chicago.

But a more jaundiced view is espoused by Robin Steinberg, who buys for Pfizer as VP-director of print at Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York: "How are we supposed to evaluate wantedness when a consumer's annual subscription can be purchased for less than a CD or a movie ticket?"

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