MPA Is Getting Closer to Digital Magazine Ad Standards

Using five analytics companies

Magazine publishers have found new fans for their content on tablets and e-readers, but will they ever be able to get advertisers to give them the same commitment?

In the three years since consumers got their hands on Apple’s first iPads, magazines have been preparing their content for the new tablets and their competitors. Publishers saw in them an opportunity to reverse the practice of devalued subscription prices and upsell advertisers to interactive ads.

While there’s been progress on the first front, it’s been hard to sell advertisers on the platform because digital circulation is still relatively small (accounting for less than 3 percent of total circ), and there’s no standard for measuring readership.

The ball got rolling a year ago when MPA—The Association of Magazine Media asked publishers to adopt voluntary guidelines for reporting tablet audience data. They would include data like total number of digital issues sold, readers per issue and time spent reading an issue.

Still, the goal of independently certified metrics was daunting. With all the different devices and measurement firms, the resulting numbers are a hodgepodge that defy easy comparisons. Publishers don’t all sell their digital editions to consumers and advertisers the same way, and some of them are still reluctant to give ad buyers all the data they want (particularly if publishers are going to charge them for digital copies) because the numbers are often small. “It’s the lack of consistent measurements that makes it really, really challenging,” said Gregg Hano, CEO of digital publishing platform Mag+.

There isn’t even complete agreement on the terminology itself, which can lead to some Clintonian discussions of their own. Take downloads: Do you count them when they’ve begun or when they’re completed? And do automatically downloads carry the same weight? Counting reading sessions of an individual issue is another. “If you open our app two weeks after the issue date…What’s the cutoff point?” asked Paul Rossi, evp and managing director of The Economist, Americas.

Another aspect to the struggle, said Robin Steinberg, evp of Mediavest, is that publishers are still invested in viewing tablet editions through their print model, which, unlike the Web, carries a premium CPM. Digital magazines could still be valued as premium because of the functionality and interactivity they let consumers enjoy, but that requires a different business model and metrics, she said.

Luckily, progress is being made. MPA has gotten five analytics companies including Google and Adobe to take previously incomparable tablet reader data and present it in apples-to-apples fashion. The industry's major publishers are slated to participate in the pilot, which is set to start in October. If the pilot goes well, the next step would be to find a third party to audit the data, a challenge unto itself as a research firm would be betting big that the time and resources required to develop a new tool would pay off. The Alliance for Audited Media (formerly Audit Bureau of Circulations) would like the job, but it's unclear MPA wants to go in that direction.

Standards, along with scale of magazines’ digital copies, could lead advertisers to put more of their budgets toward tablet editions, said Brenda White, svp, Starcom USA. As step in that direction, a few publishers have adopted the Consolidated Media Report, and for one, The Economist, it has led to "far, far better" quality of conversations with digital ad buyers, Rossi said. The timing is critical for magazines, as print advertising continues to shrink (although MPA is trying to move the focus off of print-only, planning to soon start reporting the print and digital ad and circulation footprint of about 200 titles). The industry needed to move fast with tablet metrics, but first it had to get the data right, MPA president, CEO Mary Berner said. “There’s so much at stake in this industry,” she said. “This is what the priority is."