High readership is the key

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jun 30 2009, 07:26am hrs
Stephanie Clifford

On television, advertisers pay based on the ratings of a particular commercial. On the internet, they pay according to a measurement like a click on an ad. And in magazines, advertisers choose where to run ads based on the results of door-to-door surveys done twice a year.

While other media add technology, magazines rely on a technique favoured by Civil War-era salesmen. And they believe that is hurting them. Their share of the money spent on advertising fell by 0.6 percentage points last year, to 11.5%, and is expected to decline faster than any other medium except newspapers, according to media agency ZenithOptimedia.

Two of the main research houses, Mediamark Research and Intelligence, known as MRI, and Affinity, which runs the Vista service, are updating their offerings. Currently, how much an advertiser pays is tied to a magazines rate base, the number of guaranteed subscribers and newsstand sales. But to figure out which magazines to advertise in, advertisers rely on MRIs research. It measures how many readers a magazine has, including people who did not buy it but read a friends copy or flipped through it at the doctors office. It also profiles the readers of all the magazines, including their income levels, attitudes and toothpaste-buying habits.

Scott McDonald, senior vice-president for market research at Conde Nast, said that although MRIs sampling methods were scrupulous, he had a few misgivings over the service.

MRI asked people to remember which magazines they had read over a few months, and people have unreliable memories, he said. Another problem, he said, is that while readership numbers for popular magazines tend to be steady, small magazines bounce around quite a bit based on a handful of respondents.

Vista asks online panelists which magazine ads they saw, and whether they bought anything as a result. Because it relies on an online panel, it raised the same methodology questions as the MRI issue-specific measurement. And Vistas results were limited to its sample. It could not apply those results to the whole United States.

Like Vistas ad-measurement service, MRI plans to use an online panel and weight the ad readership figures to the national figures, so advertisers can estimate how many Americans saw and reacted to one of their magazine ads.