Mags must buy into ABCe audits to prove reach

The biannual ABC magazine circulation figures have become something of an anachronism. Once eagerly awaited by publishers, they prompted wild celebrations or intense soul searching, depending on results.

Last Thursday, many senior magazine executives weren't even around to mark the latest data, for January to June 2008. It's August and many people are away. But I can't help feeling holidays would once have been planned with the ABCs in mind. Now it seems as though people deliberately go away to avoid the doom and gloom of yet another round of circulation declines.

This is partly to do with the nature of modern magazine publishing. Magazines are no longer just print products - they are brands spanning multiple platforms, including the web, mobile, radio and even TV. But, as with newspapers, measurement systems haven't caught up. Maxim, for example, posted a staggering circulation decline of almost 60%, but Dennis Publishing chief executive James Tye counters that the "magazine" reaches one million people across all platforms. NME and Kerrang! come into the same category.

Some hard-luck stories mask legitimate developments. Bauer Media's More dropped 37% year on year, but sells more copies in total because it has switched from a fortnightly to a weekly. The same applies to BBC Worldwide's Doctor Who Adventures. And it's worth noting that the big six publishers (five if you take Bauer as one entity) - IPC, H Bauer, Bauer Media, NatMags, BBC Worldwide and Conde Nast - still posted circulations totalling 21 million. That's a significant reach and an attractive audience for advertisers.

Measurement systems must evolve to include all platforms. But only about 5% of magazines currently commission an ABCe audit - and many of these are out of date. Media Week has started including a top 10 ABCe circulation list in its ABC supplement - free with this issue - but it is slightly artificial when so few are measured. Until all publishers buy into the ABCe system and get regular audits, they can hardly complain that print ABCs aren't representing their brand reach properly.

- Steve Barrett is editor of Media Week, steve.barrett@haymarket.com, www.mediaweek.co.uk/stevebarrettblog.

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