Are advertisers, to start with, interested in basing their ad buys on audience instead of paid circulation?
"No," said a senior print buyer at one major media agency. "No one has given me a compelling reason as of yet. We have to be convinced that we should pay for pass-along. Magazines are trying to take focus away from their circulation woes and the fact that they continue to devalue and commoditize their products."
That echoes the market's verdict thus far at Time magazine, which has offered to give advertisers guarantees for its total audience, including those copies passed along from paid readers to friends or family. Almost everyone has demurred, preferring to keep using paid circulation guarantees.
Magazines vs. other media
Resisting a shift to audience, however, will eventually hurt advertisers themselves, according to some ad buyers. That's because magazines are competing for ad budgets against media, like TV and the internet, which are measured by audience.
"We are talking about, in my opinion, a very necessary change," said Robin Steinberg, senior VP-director of print investment and activation at MediaVest. "We need more robust, concrete data that's timely. Second, we need to be able to apply numbers that can be aligned with other media, because print is competing with them. The audience numbers will help. You can't compare apples to oranges."
Even if a switch to audience arrives, of course, the rub is that researchers are eagerly planting a whole variety of fruit -- while publishers complain that agencies aren't looking at all the data that's already available.
"It is unfortunate to us that so much attention is paid to media, when it really should be paid to creative," said Philip W. Sawyer, senior VP-director of GfK Starch Communications. "You can have a bad ad in a magazine that has great engagement metrics and that has high audience interest and high audience involvement, but if it's a bad ad it's not going to get noticed. If you've got a great ad in a magazine that people read more casually, it is going to get noticed."
New ad research
Starch's new research, covering last June through December, asked its online panel of magazine subscribers to identify which ads they recognized and which ads they read more than half the copy. A Newman's Own advertorial for salad dressing, from the July Bon Appetit, topped the list of most-noted ads. A three-page American Express ad from the October issue of Vanity Fair ranked No. 1 on the list of most-read ads.
There's a decent chance that audience measurement will, with magazines' help, become speedier, more detailed and overall more important to the magazine industry. Creative will continue to receive new scrutiny as well, highlighting the central debate around engagement -- whether it is the job of the ads to grab the attention of the audience no matter where they appear, or the job of the media to make sure the audience is best positioned to respond to the ads. But the questions, and all the back and forth, will continue as long as marketers under pressure are demanding more and better metrics from magazines all the time. And magazines, under pressure from rising costs and proliferating competition, will have to keep trying to respond.