December 9, 2014 Last Updated 1:27 pm

The devaluing of the digital magazine advertising page

AdAge reports that MediaVest is putting the squeeze on magazine publishers, telling them their digital editions will no longer be counted as part of their ratebase

The value of the magazine ad page is up for grabs as agencies, publishers and one of the associations that represent them, try to change the rules of the game. The result may be lower net revenue per ad page, and an even more Wild West-like atmosphere for the magazine industry.

VF-iPad-issueYesterday, AdAge reported on a move by the ad media-buying agency MediaVest to demand more information from publishers concerning their digital editions. According to the story, which contains no direct quotes from publishers and only an email statement from MediaVest for confirmation, the agency will no longer accept digital editions as part of a magazine’s ratebase.

“MediaVest will no longer be accepting digital edition, tablet, or third screen copies as part of paid print ratable,” the AdAge story claimed an October memo from the agency stated.

I’m shocked that this is the first time I’ve heard this, as the move would have widespread repercussions if true. AdAge says the move may simply be a negotiating ploy on the part of MediaVest to drive down the price paid for those digital editions, but the effect would be the same: lower CPMs for publishers.

According to AdAge “MediaVest is demanding publishers provide a detailed report on each ad, including the number of unique readers who viewed the ad, the total number of times it was viewed, the number of times each unique reader viewed the ad, the average time spent with the ad and the click-through rate per ad to an advertiser’s website.”

What MediaVest appears to be demanding is that digital edition ads be measured like banner advertising on websites – and most likely priced that way, as well. This is obviously wrong, and more likely another sign of the laziness these agencies are often accused of.

Major magazine publishers have been using their digital editions to maintain their ratebases, leading to a greater portion of the ad dollars coming in actually deriving from digital. Yet the rate card treats this portion of the ad buy as if it were still print.

Most magazine production departments simply add their print ads into the digital editions without alterations or additions, then reformat their editorial content for the digital device. The result is that the digital editions can qualify as being a “digital replica” for purposes of the circulation audit, yet no more work is required on the part of the magazine’s ad production team. A very small group of magazines, however, will swap out the print creative ad copy and substitute original digital ad copy. An even smaller group of publishers will charge the advertiser for doing this.

AdAge make the same mistake other trade publishers have in stating that digital editions account for only 3.8 percent of total circulation, quoting AAM figures. The reality is that the vast majority of digital editions are not audited.

But even accepting this figure as somehow accurate, the fact is that publishers such as Condé Nast and Hearst have been driving readership to digital editions in order to cut production and distribution costs. What MediaVest seems to be doing is saying that the more this is done, the less likely the advertising will be priced using print advertising standards.

Meanwhile, the MPA – The Association of Magazine Media has been promoting its new Magazine Media 360° report, a report that attempts to measure the total brand audience of a magazine title by looking at its web, video and social media reach using survey results. Despite being a brand new report, the last three press releases have all claimed that many of the MPA’s members are showing growth – essentially destroying the credibility of the report in the minds of many right from the start.

Magazine Media 360° measures only a small subset of magazine titles, 147 at launch from 30 companies. For some, the report is seen as simply a way to provide their members with some good news to report at a time when many magazines have lost print subscribers and single copy newsstand sales.

The idea is sound: a magazine is far more than just its print edition. But as few magazines sell ad packages that include print, digital editions, web, video and social media, the impression is that the report is essentially rigged and designed to serve the needs of a small group of publishers.

“I have stated several times in these pages that I fully understand the need, desire and hope to change the topic of conversation from one of negativity about print to an industry statement that is about quantifiable and provable growth,” Robert Sacks said in his industry newsletter on November 30. “The new metrics indeed do show web engagements with magazine media brands and a positive track of capturing our reader’s web/mobile leisure time. But we haven’t monetized those captured readers. In most cases, although there are some exceptions, we haven’t yet as an industry found a way to make the digital leap and monetize our web successes.”

The MPA’s response from its president, Mary Berner, centered on the decision to stop supporting the ad page count reports produced by MIN. That report, which was used as much by magazine titles against other magazines when selling ad space, has been showing declining ad page counts for quite some time and is seen mostly as an excuse for more bad news to be reporting by the trade media.

“I can also say with confidence that the Magazine Media 360 report isn’t an ‘attempt to camouflage the continuous array of bad stats and sublimate them with always positive web-only engagement data’,” Berner wrote. “Instead, if you take the time to look at the data, you will see that it is hardly a rose- colored- glasses- perspective on the industry, but rather a remarkably transparent and dynamic set of third-party data that tracks the ups and, yes, downs (in October over 35 titles are down) of consumer demand across print, digital, web, and video for magazine media.”

For me, it is apples and oranges: I will miss the ad page count reports because they show the general trends on the print magazine industry; and they reveal which print magazines are healthy and which are not. If the goal was to show how magazine brands are performing in total it would seem logical not to scrape the ad page reports but expand them to include forms of digital advertising.

In the end, the MPA and others deemed the reports not worth the effort.

But ad page reports have nothing to do with the new Magazine Media 360 reports which are all about total brand audiences. TNM’s position is that no report can gain widespread acceptance until it has proven to be accurate over time, and can be verified.

If MediaVest is truly going to begin demanding that a magazine’s digital edition advertising be measured and priced like web advertising, it will shake up the digital publishing efforts of the major magazine companies. It will also cause them to devalue any digital publishing platform that can not deliver the measurement tools required to gain this information.

But, it is important to remember, that an increasing number of magazine titles are not being audited, are not members of any of the traditional trade associations, and are not pursuing advertising from Coca-Cola, Aflac or Honda. More and more, digital publishers are selling advertising direct (if at all) and dependent on the subscription revenue derived from readers more than advertisers.

Saveur-iPad-updateMediaVest’s position may be simply a negotiating ploy, but it is also highly counterproductive. If advertising inside digital editions is to be devalued, then it will become like web advertising – and will, in the end, be sold like web advertising: through networks, through programmatic ad buying, and not through ad media buying agencies such as MediaVest (more good news for Google, I suppose). If publishers are only to receive pennies on the dollar for digital edition advertising, then publishers will not bother selling MediaVest on their brands, it will simply not be worth the effort.

But the move may also suggest something else that print sellers have known for years: there is a divide between print ad buying and digital, with those still buying print mostly interested in digital as a complimentary part of the ad buy, while digital buyers having no real interest in print. For digital ad buyers, they want to evaluate all advertising the same way, as they do banners and buttons. So, it should come as no surprise that those buyers would to look at a publishers digital edition the same way they do other forms of digital media.

This was always the danger, that publishers would not sell their digital editions as something special but simply as an extension of print. Tablet advertising should not be priced as print, or the web – in theory it should be priced higher. Tablet magazine advertising is more valuable because of its ability to provide more interactivity, more content, direct links, etc.

But a replica page is less valuable than print mostly because it is harder to read than print, and is often passed over by the reader as the reader swipes to the next page of content that is designed for their reading environment.

Note: Sitting around a table at an industry event a couple of years ago, I once asked a group of magazine owners what they would do if they had a time machine. The subject, obviously, was “regrets”.

Once the owners got a chance to air their regrets over voting for this or that presidential candidate, they got more serious.

To a man (they were all men) they all wished they could go back to the day they agreed to give away or heavily discount web advertising. Publishers dragged ad agencies into the digital era by either giving away web advertising as part of a print ad programming, or so heavily discounting it that from that day forward digital advertising was seen as a lower price point than print.

If publishers, eager to hand on to an ad schedule, agree that their digital editions are not part of their overall magazine ratebase, will they one day wish for that time machine (again)?

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