The lost art of print analysis

Today, print advertising analysis and planning is a lost art. Frustrated media reps say that many media planners do not know how to analyze print options properly. Print planning is more art than science, and there are many factors that will yield the best and most effective solution. You can make it work for your company when you ask these seven key questions:

1) Have you researched the media consumption habits of my target audience(s)? What are the media habits of your audience(s)? Has secondary research been reviewed? Have media reps been polled for intelligence?

2) How does print fit into the media mix? If the recommendation doesn’t include printdid you consider print options? If your goals include building brand awareness, your media plan should include a multichannel approach with many touch points. Print is an important channel when brand awareness and preference are goals and should be considered.

3) Are the publications on the media plan audited? If any are notwhy were they included? An independent audit is essential, because it verifies the circulation records of the publication and publishers pay substantial annual fees for this service. With publisher-supplied data, there is no way to know if the information is accurate. What’s more publishers do not typically supply as much in-depth data as the audits provide.

There are, however, a few reasons a publisher does not produce an audit:

  • Association publications are sometimes not audited. This is acceptable because a paid membership typically includes receipt of their publication. The quality of their list is as good as the membership list — if it’s a reputable association, generally the list is good.
  • Very small, niche publications are frequently not audited. They may be small, one of a kind and cannot afford an audit or they have no competition (no reason to invest in an audit). They’re also typically inexpensive, which makes the risk of wasting budget lower if you decide to include them on the buy.
  • Many international publications are not held to the same standards as U.S. publications. Audits are hit or miss internationally, which makes buying and analyzing international print difficult. Many only supply proof that the pub has been mailed to a certain number of people, with a geographic analysis.

It’s easy to find information on how to read a BPA/ABC audit statement online (go to BPA Worldwide and Audit Bureau of Circulations). See a sample of a BPA audit statement. But what’s often missing is how the data was provided. All information isn’t of equal importance. There is a place to start, and it’s not on page one of the audit.

4) What is the quality of the circulation list for each publication on the buy? This is the most important thing an audit statement can tell you. If a publication does not pass the test on this one issue, go no further. Don’t even ask for a proposal. Aside from the editorial product, what can be more important or a better investment for the publisher than the list the publication is sent to?

Think about it — if the list is not maintained, managed and updated, it doesn’t matter what the CPM is, what the audience coverage, or even the editorial product. All of the other criteria are moot if the three-point quality test isn’t passed by the publication.

For an example of how to apply the three-point quality test, let’s focus on BPA statements — there are other audits available, but BPA is most frequently used with publications that have controlled (vs. paid) circulation.

In the BPA audit statement, paragraphs 3b and 3c contain the most valued information. It’s important to look at these figures year over year to see any significant changes up or down. Understanding this data will give you something to talk about when a rep calls to ask why they were not included on a plan.

Point one: 3b “Qualification Source — Requests” — This section tells you how a recipient requested to receive the publication — written, telecommunication, request from recipient’s company, membership benefit, business directories, “other sources.” The best rating here should be 100% Direct Request. Try not to accept anything lower than 80%. The worst-case scenario is when you see names from “other sources” or directories (which is a viable way to build the subscriber list, but these readers have not requested to receive the publication and probably don’t receive it or read it).

Point two: 3b “Qualified within” chart — This shows you how old the names on the publication distribution list are. The goal should be 90-100% one year qualified. This means the publisher is investing in keeping the list up to date and “clean.” Think of how many people change jobs, move, or die in a year. The one-year number should have the highest percent. Three-year-old circulation is unacceptable and a red flag. You wouldn’t accept three-year-old names from a list house…would you? How many people have left your organization in three years? It is significant.

Point three: 3c “Mailing addresses breakout of qualified circulation” — This tells you how the publication is addressed to its recipients. Addressed by name and title (the best — 90–100% is good, 80% is okay, etc.), name only, function only, company name only. The ranking decreases as you go down the list.

If the publication you are looking at does not pass this three-point quality test, you should seriously consider moving on to other choices. Frequently these low-quality publications will also offer remarkably low prices. Sounds great, especially when budgets are tight, but this is where CPM-only analysis can be faulty.

Deals that lower-quality publications offer will result in a low CPM and look very attractive against a higher-quality/higher-CPM magazine. An inexperienced media planner will honestly think the lowest CPM is the right choice because they are only evaluating publications based on one dimension. The better-quality magazine is delivering the audience you are paying for because their list is maintained, their names are real and they invest in their brand.

The lower-quality publication cannot substantiate its list — they cannot justify names that are three years old or not requested by the individual. Do not be “sold” based on the low rate and low CPM. These low costs might look attractive, but the warts show up when you count the audience you are really reaching.

5) Have you evaluated the editorial product? Is it a “how to,” “product focused” or “industry news” publication? How does the editorial focus of the magazine fit into the strategy? How many full-time/part-time editors write for this magazine? How much relevant editorial is covered in a given year? Is there an editorial staff, or are articles contributed by non-staff writers (red flag). Is it a pay-to-play deal, where you get editorial if you buy an ad (red flag)? Have there been any major changes in leadership/look in the past 12 months? If so, what impact might these have? If there’s a new publisher, what is her/his vision? Any big changes with a magazine can change the loyalty of its readers. Second in ranking to the quality of the list, the editorial product (what the reader is asking for) is the next most important thing to consider.

6) Review the publication audits historically. Are there any dramatic differences in the last six-month or annual audit with this publication? A good media planner will re-evaluate publications every year to make sure the quality is maintained and then look for changes in the audience coverage by industry and job title. Keep in mind that it’s possible for the lowest publication on a list to become a contender. It’s also possible that the leaders get very comfortable and lose ground. Don’t assume everything stays the same from year to year.

7) What criteria did you use for selection? What weight did you give to each criteria and why? Typical criteria after examining quality of circulation and editorial product is coverage of buyers/specifiers. This is where cost factors come in because you are measuring against worthy publications that have passed the three-point quality test, CPM prime (targeted circulation), independent  leadership documentation, marketing support, previous experience and results, ad page/editorial page ratio, and more.

What makes media planning interesting and challenging is that there can be multiple approaches and solutions to a marketing problem. There is no final and correct answer, because media planning is not a science. The best and most effective solutions come to knowledgeable planners who put careful thought, consideration and weight into all of the pieces of the puzzle.