ABC figures conceal vital insights into sales

ABC data needs to be published regularly and publishers should be obliged to declare when average monthly figures move significantly, says Steve Goodman

The latest set of magazine six-monthly ABC data is about to hit our desks. This data plays a crucial part for media planners and buyers when they are planning and buying campaigns. The data, however, hides a multitude of sins, many of which are down to the reluctance of publishers to be more open about their issue by issue sales information.

Six months is a long time in the publishing industry, and it still strikes me as absurd that data is not released more frequently, and ideally on a monthly basis for monthly titles, and weekly for weekly titles.

National newspapers are able to provide their data on a monthly basis, and a move by magazines to just that level of frequency in reporting would be a dramatic improvement. The reason for this concern is that total quantities distributed for any title can vary significantly from issue to issue. A title might distribute half its “normal” circulation one month, and twice the norm the following month, but the figures get amortised into one average six-month figure. With the market so competitive, and publishers using a variety of circulation-building tactics, including cover mounts and cover price-cuts, estimating the actual circulation an advertiser might achieve in any particular magazine issue is becoming harder than picking the six winning numbers in the Lottery.

One way to overcome this problem, while allowing publishers the leniency of reporting only every six months, has been the introduction of a 20 per cent variance clause. Publishers are invited to declare voluntarily when any particular issue achieves distribution of 20 per cent above or below the six-month average. Strangely enough, to date, only three titles have made this sort of declaration for any issue. It must be time for this clause to become compulsory.

When you finally get to see the latest set of figures, it is worth looking at some of the data that is masked by the “total net circulation per issue”. Publications have to declare the percentage of copies that are actively purchased – paid for at a newsstand or on subscription. There are some titles that have as little as 70 per cent of their total distribution actively purchased, the remainder being made up of bulks and other forms of free distribution. It is also worth noting the number of copies that are sold overseas, and possibly have no value to advertisers using that publication. In some cases, the problem is compounded by the fact that these are company sales, rather than sale or return, meaning there is a chance these copies never actually reach any consumers’ hands.

In short, never take the top line ABC figures for granted since they can hide a multitude of evils. Do ask publishers for ABC certificates for individual titles, since they may reveal a more detailed breakdown of the results than is otherwise provided in the general figures.

Steve Goodman is press director at MediaCom TMB

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