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BPA’s Digital Circ Debate

The argument—at least for publishers—seems not so much about whether non-request electronic circ should be included in BPA audits at all, but rather should it be listed as “qualified” or “non-qualified.”

When BPA Worldwide president and CEO Glenn Hansen announced in February that the bureau is considering whether to allow publishers to report non-request electronic circulation in their audits, it sparked a heated discussion between publishers and advertisers on whether the move would help publishers attract more advertising during this difficult economy, or boost circulation numbers unnaturally and allow publishers to “spam” their customers.

The argument—at least for publishers— seems to be not so much about whether non-request electronic circ should be included in BPA audits at all, but rather it’s a question of whether it should be listed as “qualified” or “non-qualified,” Hansen told AD. “Most of the circulators are in favor of it, especially in these tough economic times,” he says. “If taking manufacturing and distribution charges out of the budget is possible, then they’d be happy to contribute to that bottom line. But it’s the people who are on the front line selling and buying that are not in favor.”

Hansen says that some are concerned that the change would allow publishers to “spam” their customers, or in other words, send them something they didn’t ask for. “We really shouldn’t even call it spam because, more often then not, there’s an existing business relationship between the brand and the consumer,” he says. “But if I’m a consumer and the publisher is sending me something I didn’t ask for, how inclined am I to even click on it? Plus, if the email has a hyperlink in it, it can get caught in spam filters.”

Kelsey Voss, director of circulation and customer development at Ziff Davis, who is in favor of reporting non-request electronic circ in BPA audits, says those who are against it shouldn’t mistake the term “qualified” with “requested.”

“As long as the recipient is qualified and the delivery fits the definition according what the publisher has decided, it should be fine,” she says. “‘Qualified’ does not mean ‘requested’—they are two different things. And, honestly, I don’t think that publishers want to start spamming people. Yes, they want to build their subscriber files, but there can be rules set in place that go beyond CAN-SPAM that would satisfy those concerns, whether it’s having an opt-out in place or having the email ‘BPA-approved.’”

Mike Serino, director of circulation, Scranton Gillette Communications, on the other hand, says that he and his company are vehemently against listing non-requested digital circ as “qualified” and agrees with an anonymous comment that was posted on BPA’s blog. “It stated that the cost to put digital non-requested is minimal to putting lists on file when you have printing and postage expenses, but the barrier to entry is also lowered,” Serino told AD. “Advertisers tend to disqualify circ like that at their discretion, and in this case, they probably would.”

More importantly, Serino adds, a publisher’s goal is not to make life easier for their circ director. “Our job is to deliver the best audience we can to the advertiser,” he says. “Adding non-requested digital circ as ‘qualified’ may well in fact put into question the transparency and validity of the circulation statement and cause confusion in the advertising community.”

Hansen says that BPA’s committees have explored different resolutions to these issues, such as expanding the choices that publishers offer their customers. “In the current subscription solicitation process, customers are asked whether they like to get the print magazine, the digital edition or both,” he says. “But we really never asked the customer whether it mattered. So there’s been a discussion of adding ‘I have no preference’ on the questionnaire, so that publishers would have the option to send the print or digital edition.”

There’s also been discussion, Hansen says, of adding the green initiative to the conversation. In other words, telling the customer that they could help reduce the carbon footprint by opting for a digital edition instead of the print magazine. “It would raise awareness of the issue with the reader and I would imagine that more might choose to receive their copies electronically and then get accustomed to receiving it that way.”

Currently, Hansen added, three U.S. committees and one European committee are of the opinion that BPA should not accept non-requested digital circ as qualified, but there’s a bigger issue at hand. “Why are we trying to put a square peg into a round hole?” he says. “Digital is not the same as print, it’s more akin to an online experience. There is a measurement capability with online that there isn’t with print. Why are we not looking forward at online measurability rather than did the customer request the digital edition or not?”

To address this issue, BPA is putting together joint industry committee of audience development managers, sellers, buyers and digital media vendors to facilitate how the industry can move forward in terms of recognizing digital edition measurement and usage. Meetings are set to begin in June and recommendations should be released by early fall.

ABC’s Position on Non-Requested Digital Circ

ABC currently allows non-requested digital circulation in its business publication division; in its nomenclature, it’s “non-paid circulation other than direct request.” Very few, if any, ABC b-to-b magazines currently report any digital circulation in this category, according Neal Lulofs, SVP, communications & strategic planning, ABC.

“I think our board’s take on digital editions is this: In general, the rules governing print circulation should also apply to digital. ABC’s b-to-b publishers typically report a very small percentage of digitally delivered circ. This is a newer area of distribution that continues to evolve, but clearly offers benefits to publishers, advertisers and readers.

“Given today’s media environment, the ABC board doesn’t want to prematurely hinder our publishers’ circulation marketing opportunities in the area of digital distribution. We do, however, require full disclosure in pub statements and audit reports, so advertisers can discuss this circulation with individual publishers. Safe to say that the ABC board will continue to monitor trends in this area and augment rules and guidelines accordingly.”

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