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The Evolution of the Audit

As the media landscape continues to change, so does the way in which auditors measure key audience metrics.

Media is consumed so rapidly and through so many different mediums that the definition of a content producer or distributor is not what it once was. What magazines once did is not what they do now, which is why groups like the Audit Bureau of Circulations and BPA Worldwide are changing the way metrics are collected and reported. Like publishers, what auditors once did is not what they do now—or how they will operate in the future.

For the first time, ABC’s half-year Fas-Fax report broke out figures for standalone digital replicas, which now account for 1.7 percent of total circulation. There are 258 U.S. magazines reporting more than 5.4 million digital replica editions, which more than doubled from 2 million in the first half of 2011.

In addition to its traditional audit functions of quantifying total paid and verified circulation, newsstand sales and rate bases, the group supplies data from sources that provide tracking or accounting for digital edition activity, like Adobe Omniture. ABC relies on information provide by, in this example, Adobe Omniture, which provides tracking information about distribution and activity associated with other metrics that are reported, such as unique browsers.

“We capture distribution-related data associated with digital editions,” says Mike Lavery, president of ABC. “That includes the subscribers that purchase the magazine in the digital form only. We audit that not unlike how we audit a paid subscription for a print magazine, it’s just published in a different format.”

Variety of Business Models a Challenge

There are a few challenges when it comes to auditing these new products because consumer magazine publishers are going to market with different models—some offer the digital edition separately and not as a package. Others are bundled with print subscription offerings.

There are mobile and tablet applications, utility apps related to a magazine brand, and apps that provide games, newsfeeds and information updates, but not necessarily the magazine itself.

What Is an App, Really?

In the recent past, as media began to be realigned, publishers “were very excited about how many people downloaded their app,” says Richard Murphy, senior vice president of BPA Worldwide. “We were feeling a lot of pressure from that so we dug in a little deeper. We had to discern the difference—an app is not a digital copy. An app is a vehicle to serve the digital copy. Just because someone downloads your app, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone wants your publication. There’s been some education on both sides.”

Then there are unique visitors to consider in addition to page views, newsletter subscribers and open rates, webinar participants, Facebook fans, Twitter followers and YouTube subscribers, among other things. These breakout mediums, the auditors say, are usually more easily dealt with than digital tablet editions for the magazine itself.

“On the app side from Apple, you don’t know anything about the individual that downloaded the app,” says Murphy. “The individual would go into their iTunes account and download the app, whether it’s free or paid. All the publisher would get would be a count of one and they didn’t know anything about them. You would only get a download and a session report—when you would reach out to Apple or the publisher to get information, there’s no branded reports you would get. That was one challenge.”

When dealing with apps only, another challenge is figuring out the number of people that deleted the apps—the only data available in December 2011, for example, was the number of downloads and the number of sessions—a constant growing figure. BPA went to its board at the time and decided that the number of app downloads could be included in the group’s brand report, which includes multiple channels of media, but not as total qualified circulation.

Since then, apps have evolved a bit to prompt users to input their registration information after they purchase a product, allowing publishers to begin to regain ownership of their readers.

Standards Change Along with Tech

“As audit trails evolve and improve we’ll revisit reporting (standards and metrics),” says Murphy. “If you wait for technology to be perfect, you’ll wait forever. We’re reporting what we can now.”

While different strategies are emerging to gain additional insights into the audiences of digital and tablet editions, standardized reporting methods for both BPA and ABC continue to change as technology capabilities allow. A brand’s total footprint, however, seems to be the barometer of the future instead of a magazine’s circulation or its newsstand sales.

“This is a challenge for the entire industry that will need to be reconciled in the years to come—it isn’t just an auditing problem, but one on the media buyers and publishing sides as well. There’s an expectation gap if you will,” says Lavery. “We really think our consolidated media reports and brand-focused reports are publishing platform agnostic and are going to help this evolution take place. That document in and of itself will be evolutionary but we believe it is part of the solution. It will be brand not publication (in the future), without question. The concept of reporting, certainly at ABC, is going to dramatically change. The concept of reporting will be replaced by databases and in the near future I really believe we won’t be focused on a particular report as opposed to a database that has all of this data in it that can be searched and provide information by channel or platform that is rolled up into a brand. The concept of a report will evolve at an accelerated pace.”

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