Truth in Advertising: Magazine Statistics, MagNet, MIN and MPA 360
As the most recent MagNet reports came in, I started to ponder other recent changes in reporting on the magazine media industry. You will remember that the Media Industry Newsletter (MIN), which had until recently been chronicling the magazine industry's ad page performance for almost 70 years, was asked to stop tracking and distributing "sold" ad page data to media professionals with its legendary Boxscores. MIN editor-in-chief Steve Cohn reported that publishers were being discouraged from turning over their numbers as the MPA, the Association of Magazine Media, was getting ready to unveil a new way of calibrating the industry's performance called Magazine Media 360⁰. Now that the Industry has done away with MIN's Boxscore reports, what do we know about the performance of our industry?
As I read the most recent chart derived from the 360⁰ numbers there was not a single negative number of followers for any magazine, nor was there a difference in the percent of Differential in Followers from September to October. So, Bravo to all! Web followers have not gone down in a month and in some cases they have grown considerably. According to the report, there are now mostly positive numbers for the magazine industry.
We also now have the ability to track the number of e-shares, e-posts and e-reply's on any given month. How are ad pages doing? That information is no longer distributed to the professional public at large. We can guess, but we do not know. Is guessing better than knowing? Perhaps in some cases it is.
At the same time as we all know, almost every magazine media company still counts on its print editions and not the web for the majority of its revenue. There has been some progress in gaining some web dollars in this exchange, but in most cases, they haven't come close yet to a print replacement. I believe eventually digital revenue will supplant print as a major revenue source, but clearly not quite yet and at least not yet for most titles.
Which brings me back to the MagNet report which noted that U.S. magazine newsstand sales fell 27% in the third quarter of this year, a larger loss than usual, but for clearly obvious reasons: Source Interlink's bankruptcy. I thought I would try and discuss the industry's understandable wish to camouflage the continuous array of bad stats and sublimate them with always positive web-only engagement data.
Here's a question. What does a "like" mean to your business? Does it mean anything at all? The fact that it is now more important to track "likes" on Facebook, pictures on Instagram, and conversations on Google+ rather than to face the nuts and bolts realities of the publishing business' main revenue streams still seems a bit unusual. I must admit that eventually some of those numbers might be more important than actual print statistics, but not yet and not now, and not the numbers we are collecting.
According to Chris Gayomali in Fast Company in a recent article about social networking sites:
"The crux of the research suggests that brands are wasting their time, effort, and money on Facebook and Twitter to diminishing returns. 'A study conducted by the (Forrester research) from earlier this year found that posts from top brands on Twitter and Facebook reach just 2% of their followers. Engagement is even more measly: A mere 0.07% of followers actually interact with those posts.'"
He goes on to say, "Basically, if your brand is looking for engagement on social media you're probably better off turning your attention away from giant networks like Twitter and Facebook. This is especially true if you're trying to engage fans on Twitter, where context is lacking and being funny is hard."
Let's look at this just a little closer and now look at Instagram. In an article from Digaday titled "Three magazine publishers winning at Instagram," Ricardo Bilton suggests, "For publishers Playboy, Natural Health and GQ, for example, Instagram has quickly become an effective new way for them to reach readers as they flip through their phones. Magazine publishers collectively have 20 million followers on Instagram, according to a new report from Magazine Media 360⁰, which analyzed the social media feeds of 166 magazine brands."
The article goes on to state:
"Natural Health has nearly doubled its number of Instagram followers over the last year (they're currently closing in on 20,000 followers)."
"GQ was an early Instagram adopter, and is now the fourth largest magazine publisher on Instagram with more than 1.2 million followers"
"Playboy is another 'inherently visual' brand whose content has translated well onto Instagram. It's currently the third most popular magazine publisher on the platform at 1.6 million followers. "
Do these new statistics show a new way of calibrating the industry's performance? Yes and no. They do show some nice positive statistics, but when you compare those numbers to how the actual print magazines are doing you get a different picture.
Here is how those titles play out on the newsstand. Natural Health, ranked 454, makes a bit more than 1 million in revenue annually and is showing year on year (YOY) unit growth in the low single digits. Playboy (ranked 132/under 4 million in revenue) and GQ (53/over 7 million in revenue) are both down in the -20% range YOY based on units sold.
So the success on Instagram doesn't necessarily equate to a more vibrant mothership title. In fact, you might draw the conclusion that there is no relationship between Instagram success and a title's actual sales vibrancy.
My analysis comes down to this: likes are easier to get than selling a magazine on the newsstand. Likes are easier to cajole from a free and easy public than increasing subscription sales. A like has no commitment, no out of pocket expense by the liker, and means nothing to anyone except those who propose to somehow profit from being liked. It is a semi-random click without too much significance by our readers nor does it have long-term merit. It is worth noting that there are several B2B cases that have been pointed out to me, where publishers are working likes into new revenue streams, but on the whole that is a rarity and not yet commonplace.
And when you consider corporate America's rabid pursuit of likes by almost every major company in any and all industries, it just further cheapens the value chain of these liked experiences all the more. This pursuit of likes takes a once somewhat meaningful social networking tool and debases the value of all crowdsourcing. This is nothing short of corporate exploitation of the public's largess and will one day be seen for what it is -- the overused saturation of a once pretty good idea, into the open pit of social mining for likes on a wholesale basis. When likes were homegrown, organic, and intimate they had a real value, but mostly to those who actually knew each other.
Now strangers like strangers for little apparent reason other than to befriend another human being or some business from a distance, but not necessarily with any real and understandable close connection. Despite what some politicians say, corporations are not people. And you can't really like a brick building, a giant warehouse, or industrial mega-makers of things, with the possible exception, so it seems, of Apple Corp.
Magazines on the other hand, aren't meant to be widgets. They are club-building, membership-thinking, associations of like-minded people reading content of a specific and curated nature. So it makes sense that social networking should be part of the modern "magazine mix". Social media is a natural extension of the family of magazine products.
But what does it say when the sales of your mothership title continues to slide, while your ability to have non-revenue producing social networking numbers continues to rise? What is the correlation between the printed magazine's tumble and the growth of your social network? Is it a meaningful indicator of the magazine media's transformation from one substrate to another?
It seems clear to me that the more time our readers spend with our ancillary web products, the less time they spend with our original major revenue -- producing print magazines. And that is a real business conundrum.
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. 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.
By the latest reports print sales are down yet again, while the web interaction of our readers is continuing to rise at a rapid pace. Let's suppose that both trends continue into next year, and that print sales are again down a conservative 7%, while web engagement rises 100%. What conclusions should we draw from this for the magazine industry?
Should we track the engagement factors of the web communities that we create? Yes, of course we should. But will the numbers that we currently track in any way stop or explain the trends of the print side of our business? No, I think not. Will the advertisers finally decide that all the e-shares, e-posts, e-likes and e-replies on the internet and with mobile engagement now qualify print titles for more print advertising dollars? Again, I think not.
Advertisers will always go where the readers are, and we are proving in no uncertain terms that many of our engaged readers are online, that they are very active and in continuously growing numbers using apps and websites in ever greater numbers.
Publishing reports should be transparent and filled with information in order to get a full picture that calibrates the entire industry's performance. They should include circulation numbers, advertising page counts, and also digital metrics, all of which together tell the combined and robust story of our magazine media industry. Leaving out print data deludes no one, while it sends out a defensive note of corporate discomfort with that part our business, which is, in fact, still the most profitable part of the industry.
What we really should be doing is building and tracking the public's interest on our own sites and apps, instead of someone else's site. We shouldn't be the pilot fish feeding off the droppings of sharks; we should be the sharks. For survival we need to have a direct lucrative relationship, with the paying/reading public and not a third-party referred relationship.
Post Script: I have expressed my thoughts on this subject and now it is your turn. If you agree, if you disagree, if you have other observations, let's have an industry dialog. I will reprint all responses and reactions for further discussion. Send us your note, essay, reaction or other observation.