Monday, April 30, 2007

Rapid Report's Slow Burn

Rapid Report's Slow Burn
by Lucia Moses

When the Audit Bureau of Circulations launched Rapid Report last July, publishers were said to enthusiastically support the online service, recognizing advertisers wanted to get circulation numbers more frequently than the twice-annual publisher’s statements. In fact, 15 percent of ABC magazine members surveyed said they expected to sign up for the free, voluntary service.

Almost a year later, a mere 70 titles have signed on—less than 9 percent of all magazine members and far below the 250 or so of the biggest publications that the service was aimed at. And one of the charter participants and biggest supporters, American Media Inc., has stopped reporting numbers for Star, one of its biggest titles.

While all the major publishing houses have at least some representation, media buyers said that without participation by all the magazines in a given category and by newsstand-heavy titles, the service has little utility.

Still, there’s no talk of shelving the service anytime soon, which provides topline circ estimates within weeks of the on-sale date. But ABC board members representing publishers and advertisers said they’re disappointed in the rate of sign-up for the service.

“Rapid Report clearly has the support of [AMI] in terms of large, multi-title companies,” said Jack Hanrahan, U.S. print director, OMD, and a member of the ABC’s magazine buyers’ advisory committee. “It doesn’t have the support of Time Inc., Hachette Filipacchi, Hearst [Magazines], Condé Nast.”

While AMI has had all 13 titles reporting from the start, David Leckey, AMI’s executive vp of consumer marketing and an ABC board member, said the publisher stopped reporting numbers for Star March 12 due to lack of participation by its competitors, although he added it would resume reporting if one of them came on board. “We are commended for taking a leadership role, but I’ve constantly seen it turned against us because competitors have access to Rapid Report,” he said. “The media have used it to a degree against us. We support the ABC’s initiative, but we will not place ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.”

In terms of other publishing companies, OMD’s Hanrahan Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated is the only weekly participating, and it’s mostly subscription-based. “In Style is a good choice to put on there, even Real Simple, but if you’re focused on what’s the most relevant weekly for buyers to know more about, it would be People,” Hanrahan said. “SI has not even 2.5 percent of its copies in single-copy sales. And [Us Weekly publisher] Wenner Media doesn’t participate at all.”

A Time Inc. rep said the company supported the service and was considering adding other titles. Wenner, meanwhile, wouldn’t comment, and Condé Nast did not return calls. Hachette supports the service, having put on three of its biggest titles—Car and Driver, Road & Track and Woman’s Day—and plans to fold in other titles in the future, a company spokeswoman said. Hearst, with two magazines reporting, is evaluating the accuracy of the data, said John Hartig, head of consumer marketing. “We are open to adding more titles as advertising interest grows, but we’d like to better understand how agencies are using the data before jumping into it full force,” said Hartig.

Publishers have been concerned about rivals seeing their numbers and how buyers will use the data. But buyers said the information provided by Rapid Report is too new and lacking in context to be used to penalize publishers.

“We don’t have enough research to know why newsstand numbers are going down,” said Robin Steinberg, senior vp, director of print investment, MediaVest USA, and an ABC board liaison. “This report was created simply to help manage and view the numbers at a more rapid rate. The biggest challenge voiced by publishers is the fear of buyers making immediate plan changes based on these fluctuations. However, the reality, is we don’t make changes based on a single piece of information.”

As for publisher objections that the process is cumbersome and numbers are a moving target, Leckey said that as the person who posts AMI’s data, he can attest that it’s not, adding that there’s no deadline to file and numbers can be updated continually. “It’s Turbo Tax,” he said. “It’s very, very easy.”

Observers said the low level of Rapid Report participation is a stumbling block to fulfilling the desire many publishers have to move to an audience-based measurement system, and that the ABC may eventually have to pull the plug. “I don’t think we need to get 100 percent [of ABC members] on Rapid Report, but I’d like to see us get to 20 percent of our membership,” Leckey said. “If participation’s not there, [the ABC] may have to rethink their allocation of resources.”

Another ABC director, Judy Vogel, research director at PHD USA, put the onus partly on her peers to increase participation. “I believe the buyers are not screaming enough about it,” she said. “Short of something that is somewhat punitive, what repercussions are there if they don’t participate? We’ve got to send a stronger message to publishers.”

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