Media plans by the numbers

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Publishers and others in the magazine industry from time to time cast aspersions on the use of circulation data and syndicated research for magazine analyses. Some media professionals express concern that the use of both syndicated research audience numbers and circulation data holds magazines to a higher standard than other types of media-and that the data in question must be more clearly defined to be useful. We at General Motors take issue with these perceptions.

GM is one of the largest magazine advertisers. Our media-planning process incorporates virtually all meaningful research and data elements, including qualitative and quantitative data from both syndicated research and circulation audits. Many magazines and publishing companies also furnish their own proprietary data, some of which withstands the scrutiny of our research experts and is used accordingly. This thorough methodology, combined with our industry position, gives us a unique vantage point from which to consider the issue.

Most would agree the current syndicated audience research falls short of being the holy grail. But such research never purported to be an issue-specific measurement. Rather, it represents an annual average. TV buying analyzes actual audiences by specific program episode-not just season-long or annual averages. So using audited circulation data to determine magazine performance most closely parallels the approach taken with TV. True, it also assumes the conversion between circulation and audience is constant across a couple years' worth of issues as determined by syndicated research. Such a conversion may be less than exact. But advertisers that walk away, content only to rely upon annual syndicated audience numbers without tying back to an issue's circulation, hold magazines to a significantly lower standard than other media.

Regarding the clarity of available data, in circulation there have been a number of recent initiatives to clarify and streamline circulation reports. At GM, we're pleased to see these efforts continuing. We believe they have made the information much easier to use for both advertisers and publishers. We recognize audited circulation figures play a critical role in determining if advertisers get what they expect and pay for. We feel quite strongly today's media planners must accept responsibility for understanding existing terms, rules and report formats. The competitive advantage of their firm and/or client hangs in the balance.

Redoubled training effort

Are data distinctions or definitions unclear? Targeted training is more accessible than ever. Audit bureaus have redoubled efforts to educate the industry via seminars and programs in most major cities. GM and our agencies supplement these efforts with in-house training. Are numbers missing that would make a critical difference to the decision-making process? Audit bureaus are member-driven organizations. Advertisers that don't see what they need should get involved and make their opinions heard. Would online files or electronic spreadsheets work better than hard copy reports? Formats exist to meet these needs and more.

Now what about syndicated audience research? True, an absence of industrywide standards can make comparisons between studies, and among publications, challenging at best. This is where advertisers need to question publisher-supplied research results as a key step in the decision-making process. How was this study conducted? Who performed the research? What does this number mean? Again, failure to ask the right questions holds magazines to a lower standard than other media. Recent industry concerns on this topic have led to the finalization of industry-developed standards that serve as a solid foundation for subscriber-verification services. As with circulation, objective verification can reinforce the clarity and credibility of these measures, especially when they're examined in combination with circulation figures.

Ultimately, not making the effort to actively use all appropriate, available information suggests a lack of professional responsibility and follow-through that is unacceptable at GM. In this ultra-competitive economy, other advertisers would do well to adopt our approach and philosophy if they are to make informed, fiscally sound decisions. That means gleaning all possible value from currently available data while constantly pushing for enhancements that move the industry forward. What measurements would better help us determine magazines' value? How can we get them?

Continued progress will take some talking. That's why it's critical to assume an active role in the industry collaboration fostered by audit bureaus and other organizations. One promising result of increased data scrutiny is the growing number of dialogues about magazine value, consumer trends and habits and so forth. These need to continue on both an individual level to address particular business facets and on an industry level to assess changing perceptions. If we continue to work together, we just might find the real holy grail within reach.

Michael Browner is executive director, media and marketing operations, General Motors Corp., and chairman of the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

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