New BPA rules show growing influence of the Internet

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BPA Worldwide issued new rules Friday regarding subscription qualification forms and digital editions. Although the rules themselves are arcane, the modifications show how the Internet affects almost every aspect of the publishing business—and how the ultimate impact of the Web is still unclear.

For the first time, the publication-auditing company is allowing "prepopulation"—the filling in of blanks with previously provided data such as name and title—on Web and e-mail qualification forms. BPA’s permitting of prepopulation, however, is limited. Magazines can only use it on questions that have a single answer, and each prepopulated response must be confirmed by the subscriber.

Prepopulation is an issue, because circulation directors believe it will improve requalification rates—especially on the Web. The BPA’s research indicates that requalification rates did not improve with prepopulation, but that doesn’t mean that its use doesn’t improve the reader’s experience. "The idea is to make the form as easy as possible for the subscriber to fill out," said Scott Cravens, VP-audience development at Cygnus Business Media, who is also a member of BPA’s circulation managers advisory committee. "The simpler the form the better. This is just another attempt to do that."

BPA also offered several rule changes regarding digital editions, which are electronic replicas of print publications of the sort offered by Zinio Systems, NXTBook Media, eBook Systems and others. One change is that nonqualified digital copies cannot be included on BPA circulation reports.

Another change is that when publishers report download rates on BPA circulation reports, those rates must be reported throughout the report. This rule change gives download rates greater visibility. "The download remains optional for publishers. What we changed is the reporting requirements," said Rich Murphy, BPA’s senior VP-auditing.

The future of digital replica publications—which are often used by publishers to serve international readers and to cut paper, printing and postage costs—has generated controversy over the past year. Bob Carrigan, CEO-president-publisher of International Data Group’s Computerworld, is one of several IDG executives who contend download rates are more important for judging the readership of digital editions than e-mail alerts, which remain BPA’s standard for auditing digital editions.

So far Carrigan finds little evidence that large numbers of subscribers are actually downloading these online publications to read them. "We’re doing a lot of our own experimenting," he said. "We’re not satisfied with the results of our test."

Of the 850,000 subscribers to IDG’s PCWorld, just 4,000 download the digital edition.

IDG competitor Ziff Davis Media has been much more aggressive with digital circulation, using subscription agents to solicit digital subscriptions paid for not by the recipient but by a third party.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations reclassified about 350,000 of these subscriptions to Ziff Davis’ PC Magazine—nearly one-third of the publication’s circulation—from "paid" to "analyzed nonpaid" for the December 2003 issue, not because they were digital subscriptions but due to the actions of the subscription agent. Nonetheless, IDG characterizes the incident as an example of a publisher cutting corners with digital subscriptions.

Just as publishers hold different views on the value of digital editions, so do media buyers. "I think it will have legs, with new technologies like Wi-Fi and tablet PCs becoming more pervasive," Mike Paradiso, global media director for Computer Associates International, said of digital editions.

But Sarah Fay, president of Carat Interactive, was significantly less optimistic. "Personally, I think it’s a fad that will go away. … I don’t see the audience numbers to support it in any major way."

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