Magazine metrics: Advance or retreat?

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2007 should be the year that we begin to see some meaningful movement on the magazine metrics front.

We should see other publishers emulate Time Inc.'s decision to reduce Time magazine's rate base and try to move toward audience metrics that fairly reflect magazines' true reach, or introduce their own variations on such a strategy.

We should also see more major publishers right-size titles with inflated paid circulation levels. Or, at the very least, don their flak jackets and insist on being fairly compensated for those nonpaid "verified" components within existing circulation that do deliver valuable exposure for advertisers.

Unfortunately, the odds are against any significant progress on these fronts.

Most publishers are likely to sit back and watch the advertising community's reaction to Time magazine's bold initiative. And on the verified front, some publishers are already chopping this circulation out of their statements, rather than try to make media buyers listen to reason.

No doubt about it: With the whole metrics scenario in flux-and some media buyers still intent on extracting a pound of flesh when it comes to verified-being in the advance guard would require risk in the short term.

Given deteriorating circulation economics, isn't it likely that hewing to the status quo presents a greater risk in the long term?

A couple of thoughts on the year ahead:

Exploiting digital capabilities. Increasing site traffic and ad revenue, as well as creating new revenue channels, are obviously key drivers behind publishers' development of all kinds of new capabilities - video, mobile phone services, etc.

But the year's initiatives should also include testing of how such resources can be leveraged most effectively in the service of print subscription marketing and honing online subscription offers and techniques.

The "return" of direct mail and sweepstakes. In fact, in the past year, direct mail volume jumped 15 percent, to more than 114 billion pieces-exceeding First Class volume for the first time.

Magazine publishers who slashed direct mail budgets in favor of other, now not-so-viable sources are rediscovering that this channel can indeed be cost-effective (renewability, anyone?), at least in the hands of astute direct marketers with sufficient testing budgets.

And after shunning sweepstakes offers for a decade following the legal feeding frenzy set off by some overzealous stampsheet packages, the industry is cautiously testing again. Key subscription agents and publishers are launching sweeps-based programs, and so far, the reports are encouraging.

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