Monday, May 9, 2011

Advertising on tablets, trust but verify; while publishers tout new combined audits, marketers express doubts

The topic of advertising on tablets is heating up because of changes publishers are making to their circulation claims, assisted by rule changes at the ABC and BPA. Publishers have always been eager to take advantage of their digital readership by lumping them in with print circulation numbers, and now that the audit bureaus, stung by declining numbers themselves, have signed on to their member's views, suddenly some publications have been able to report surging growth in the number of readers they are reaching. But many advertisers and their agencies are not buying it.

At stake here is the value of an ABC or BPA audit, and the truth is that the value will continue to decline if publishers and the audit bureaus continue to create doubt in the minds of the advertising community that publishers are dealing with them straight.
But, of course, much of the publishing community haven't been playing it straight of years. While many of my fellow publishers will no doubt not appreciate my point of view, it is a sad fact that far too many publishing firms have been playing fast and loose with their numbers for years.

In the past decade I have worked at several media firms that were being less than totally honest with the advertisers concerning the number and quality of the readers they would reach by placing an ad with a particular magazine. One firm simply made up the numbers, something that is easily done because none of their books were audited. At another, the circulation director stopped qualifying any readers at all on unaudited magazines – not surprisingly those books were losing advertisers left and right. This same circulation director was also in charge of supplying web reader numbers: those numbers appeared to have been drawn out of a hat, leading to widespread skepticism by the publishers and sales reps. In the end, few wanted to sell digital.

But the audit has always been a point of differentiation: audited books were trusted by both advertiser and agency alike, and so the cost to audit was deemed worth it for publishers wishing to attract grade A advertisers. But as David Carr of the NYT wrote this weekend, agencies are starting to balk at the notion that the numbers being presented to them are automatically valid. Told that digital readership numbers can count as part of the rate base, some media buyers are hesitating. Both Carr and Adweek's Lucia Moses quote from a letter sent by MediaVest’s Robin Steinberg to publishers warning them that they will need to provide verification for their new combined numbers, and proving that their digital readers are engaging with their products.

“We don't believe digital copies should automatically count,” Steinberg is quoted in the Adweek storty. “We need to know what the value is. We need additional information on who received it, did they open it, how long did they spend with it.”

For new digital publishing start-ups this may prove to be good news. If the marketing claims being thrown around by traditional media companies are going to get scrutinized very closely then it means that start-ups will simply be in the same boat as the big guys – after all, we all knew that the numbers claimed by new media companies would be received skeptically, now at least one agency in on record as saying that they won't just automatically give a pass to the traditional media guys.