Digital Magazine Forum: What’s the Circulation?

[by Dorian Benkoil] Just because circulation is “verifiable” online, doesn’t mean there’s no controversy. Folks at the conference today are talking about what qualifies as a verified audit and how it applies to the offline world. For example, if you’ve subscribed to the online edition of a magazine, and get an e-mail notification that it’s available, that can according to auditors’ rules be counted as “delivery” so the advertiser can be charged for ads. (Publishers have the option of counting downloads, but virtually never use that.) That can ignore as much as 80% of people who get the email but don’t download, I’m told.

And so when publishers talk to marketers about 3 of 4 readers or more reading the digital editions of their publications, that’s probably 3 of 4 who downloaded the magazine — not of all who initially subscribed but didn’t bother to download the publication after receiving the notification email.

There is an analogy in the print world: How many times have you gotten a magazine, kept it on your coffee table or next to the bed for a couple of months, then thrown it out without ever having opened it?

But the difference with digital is that we CAN know these figures – we can tell how many people, after getting e-mail notification that a publication is ready, actually go and get it. We can tell, for a Web site, how many unique visitors there are and what pages they looked at. And as marketers get increasingly sophisticated they’re demanding the information.

Meanhile, a tad of news: It looks like BPA, auditors to the business part of the magazine industry analogous to ABC for consumer pubs, are going to change their rules to make it easier for digital publications to count circulation online.

While BPA hasn’t previously said they wouldn’t audit standalone digital products, that hasn’t been the understanding in the industry. Part of that confusion comes from their current definition of what can be counted. The rules talk about digital “versions” or “editions” that are a “replica” of a print product. A BPA task force yesterday recommended a change in the definition to strike the word “replica” and change “digital version” to “digital publication.” It’s a small step, but at least an indication that they’re trying to accommodate the digital world that’s not reliant on print. Their board meets on the recommendations next week. BPA separately audits Web sites in a different way than it does “digital publications.”

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