PRINT RESEARCH AT THE CLOVERLEAF.
R&D Without Funding is Comfort Without Cure.
By Erwin Ephron
TV research is at a crossroads, with Nielsen and SMART pointing different directions. Print research is at a cloverleaf, with publishers pointing at each other.
A "master-plan" to improve Print Research had evolved from the ARF Symposium held last year. It had three terrific ideas:
Well, talk is cheaper than drink, even at Symposia. When the focus turned to action, nothing happened because of conflicting interests. This, as I recall, was the roll-call:
Agencies and advertisers -- the group least directly affected -- were the most aggressive about the need for action. They pretty much voted "Yes, let’s do it."
Publishers were wary that any organized call for improvement might further undermine confidence in current data—and in perverse double jeopardy, increase research costs—mostly said "not interested."
Research suppliers, settling for the devils they knew, solidly voted "no way."
Much of the debate
was a study in denial.
Much of the debate was a study in denial—private reality hidden by public pretense. The reality is we ask too much of our surveys and our respondents. The pretense is we talk about the many other things we need to do.
Readership of 230 magazines cannot be accurately determined in a single interview. The list of magazines is too long. The recall period (past week, past month) is too long. The reading event (read or looked-into, any time, any place) is too inconsequential. We are getting title-recognition, yes-saying, honest confusion and failure to remember reported as readership. In TV, where we have a meter standard, there is abundant proof this technique does not work.
As the ARF group pointed-out, reducing respondent burden is key to improving the measurement. The interview can be tedious. The respondent ‘screens-in’ from a deck of more than 200 magazine logos, then answers readership questions for each title screened-in, then answers questions on other media (including television) and a battery of demographics. The average interview runs a mind-numbing 50-minutes.
But averages are misleading. Twenty percent of adults do more than 50 percent of the readings, which means they screen-in many more magazines, which results in an even longer, more repetitive interview. Most of our magazine numbers are generated by these heavy reader interviews. Common sense says interviews covering that many magazines (and other stuff) are overloaded, but no one really wants to confront the problem.
Each of us should be forced to take a magazine interview and fill-out a product questionnaire before we use the data to spend a client's money. Too busy? So are the many people who refuse to participate. Then perhaps, we'll take a fresh look at the priorities that make us push for bad data, as long as there's lots of it and the price is right.
Magazines need a funded
"print lab" to sort things out.
There are a lot of good things going-on in magazine research—most of them, blessedly, focused on making print more useful to advertisers. Issue reader accumulation (from MRI), to encourage time-planning of magazines and effective weekly weight-levels. Sales tracking (from MPA) to show how print works in the marketplace. Database research (From A&S and Conde Nast) to provide more useful information for smaller circulation magazines. The missing ingredient is R&D on the core research problems. This requires a dedicated, focused, well-financed agent—a magazine "SMART", with a real print-lab as its tool.
The ARF, to its credit has gone ahead and organized a Print-lab of its own, which has been hard at work. But it is a spare-time activity, with no funding and no professional research staff. To my mind, a gesture.
The notion that well-intentioned people can solve the many problems dogging readership studies in their spare-time, is naive and counter-productive. It is comfort without cure. Print needs an independently funded R&D research initiative—managed by a first-rate research company. This is a realistic approach to improving the data we use to buy magazines. SMART did it for TV. The same idea can work for print.
Magazine research could be at an important crossroads if we were willing to go in the same direction—and pay the toll.
- January 1, 1998 -