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Could dropping the NRS actually lose newsbrands money?

30 Jul 2014  |  Bob Wootton 
Could dropping the NRS actually lose newsbrands money?

There's no apparent regard for the fact that a number of industry sources, including TGI, UKOM and RAJAR, are calibrated against the NRS population survey. If we kill the NRS much could fall apart, writes ISBA's Bob Wootton.

'Press' readership research

However much I try to avoid the obvious trap of talking about media research, given my participation in the managements of all of the industry's currencies, sometimes it's unavoidable. Indeed, I broke my own code of omerta in my last column, 'Bonfire of the JICs?' which yielded a rich postbag and presaged subsequent research-related events by just a few days.

I'm referring of course to the Newspaper Publishers Association's recent decision to initiate its own review into the future of 'readership' research.

Thinkbox's Tess Alps, always good for a considered and independent perspective, picked up on this and a couple of other serious industry issues in her blog for Brand Republic on July 18.

The newspapers, understandably buoyed by their success in reaching an unprecedented consensus on the specification of a new universal trading system - which they also hope to sell to periodicals - took a necessary step in disrupting the National Readership Survey (NRS) by serving it notice.

This certainly got their fellow stakeholders' attention. I'm on record for my view that they then overshot by taking the further and unwarranted step of announcing and initiating their own review and effectively signalling UDI.

This puts them at odds (albeit rather different odds) with each of their fellow industry stakeholders and wounds NRS - whose new CEO has been in place for a mere month, incidentally - grievously if not yet fatally.

There's also no apparent regard for the fact that a number of other industry sources, including TGI, UKOM, RAJAR and JICREG, are calibrated against the NRS population survey. No NRS, no calibration and much could fall apart, or at least cost everybody, including newsbrands, a lot more money.

Having been a director of NRS for nearly twenty years, I could mention that for many of those it was the newspapers' representatives on a then-bloated board who most often deadballed any attempts to drive progress.

And from a number of conversations with some of their leading lights, I could also confirm their mounting frustrations with audience research as circulations and readerships declined and revenues become more challenging.

But clear as I am on the depth of their frustrations I am equally unclear as to what they actually want, though the words 'responsiveness' and 'engagement' come up most frequently.

True, joint industry governance is slower-moving than unilaterally-commissioned research. Forging a consensus between media-owner desire for big numbers (more revenue) and advertisers' search for something approaching a credible 'truth' takes time.

The NRS has also been dogged by the natural tension between newspapers (latterly 'newsbrands') and magazines (or whatever they're going to call themselves in future). On the plus side, the more funders for the survey, the broader the base across which its significant costs are amortised.

The presence of 'mags' also drives accuracy, as many of their titles' smaller readerships are harder to measure and force a larger sample. But then the two camps compete for some of their revenue and sell differently, albeit to an overlapping group of agency and advertiser buyers.

'Responsiveness' includes frequency of publication, the argument being that quarterly is insufficient for titles that appear (at least) daily. By contrast BARB measures and reports TV viewing continuously, but before we get too carried away, let's remember that its constituents also sink over £25m into it each year, compared to NRS' (approximate) £4m.

Moreover, BARB's diverse constituents are sensible and mature enough to see the merits to progress of inclusive collaboration for a greater good, and its (newish) leadership are up for it, embracing and driving change.

'Responsiveness' also wrappers publishers' age-old gripe that circulation and audience can move in opposite directions, often publicly-laundered in their people's individual sales meetings. While one might expect these data to track each other, it is still possible for one to move one way and one the other, especially when the differences in the capture mechanisms - ABC audit vs NRS panel research - are considered.

'Engagement' is about the depth of relationship with the reader. The more this can be claimed and proven, the better the price that can arguably be obtained for media space. It's also something of a holy grail for agencies and media owners alike, all of whom would love to proffer better metrics to advertiser customers eager for such insight.

Perversely, the dear old NRS (around since 1954) contains several useful quantitative indicators of 'engagement': time spent reading, proportion of title viewed. And as it has striven to extend to cover tablet and mobile editions (subject to the readerships being big enough to research), it has captured more relevant data.

The 'engagement' that NPA's members are seeking must therefore be something else/more than what they're already paying for and have to hand.

Anyway, we must look forward positively to finding out what the NPA's members want and engaging hopefully and optimistically for a good outcome. There's a lot riding on this for the newsbrands - their ad revenues, to be precise - so it had better be good. Advertisers have some choice as to where to put their ad budgets these days.

The toxic cesspit (continued)

In his July 21 piece, my fellow contributor Dominic Mills raked over the emerging mess that is the online display market under this title.

Sadly, much of what's emerging makes grim reading. It's been claimed that less than 50% of ad budgets actually appear as 'working media' (the term many major advertisers use to describe an opportunity for their target consumers to see their marketing comms and that has had to be coined simply because so much of their money is siphoned off in fees and other 'costs').

Then we hear that less than 50% of these 'impressions' are viewable by humans.

These assertions have been unchallenged for months now, which gives them validity, and they're averages, so some will be doing better and some worse. This means that we can commute the two figures, which means that some 75% of online display adspend is at best misplaced, and worse, wasted. Now that is a scandal.

Even with the protection of the City of London Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU)'s Infringing Website List and the joint industry-agreed Good Practice Principles to help protect brands - both worthy but a long time coming - there is also the continuing issue of reputable, responsible advertisers' brand ads appearing in some very, very unsavoury places.

Since a high and growing proportion of online inventory is traded impression by impression in real time, there are billions, if not trillions, of ad trades. So it's easy to see how a few can slip through, particularly when unscrupulous networks or aggregators are involved and feasting on the attendant revenues.

And now the FT confirms that things are yet worse. Attribution of advertising effect is still usually ascribed to the last click, not because it's right, but because despite 'big data' it's still difficult to unpick consumers' journeys and attach value to each step of their way. The crims have clocked this and figured how to create lots of fraudulent click traffic, distorting real reads of effect and diverting booming ad budgets into dark places.

Nobody seems that fussed about cleaning things up, but perhaps this is not so strange. I'd venture two reasons: tons of money is being made regardless, and the earnout horizons in the space are much shorter.

So there's a major opportunity - not to say a solemn responsibility - for the same IAB that has been such a great flag-bearer for the media it represents to step in and take a much more robust leadership stance amongst its members, however uncomfortable, before the bad reputation sticks and worried money migrates.

And while on this topic, you really should read this blog entry. It may not be in the language and tone that is expected of me, but I found myself smiling and agreeing wholeheartedly with its content and sentiments.

That damn BARB

Respected media veteran Tim Kirkman, now a senior executive at ESI, has lashed out at BARB as an exclusive club for the big broadcasters following its reports of depressed ratings for its London Live channel.

Before one even gets into who BARB's controlling stakeholders are, there are good technical and financial reasons why panel research favours the bigger players whose media have bigger audiences (see 'Press Readership Research' above).

But rather than bemoan the status quo loudly, ESI might better put its money where its mouth is and fund a boost to BARB's London panel so it can test and perhaps prove its point.

Like community radio, local television is a result of a political vision - hence its preferential positions on the various electronic programme guides - and not market demand from consumers or advertisers.

And it's a competitive space. Although regional opt-outs are scarcer on ITV and Channel 4 these days, Sky's Adsmart allows regional, even local, targeting within some very good broadcast content indeed.

Happy holidays, all.


MediaTel will be hosting a debate on the Future of National Newspapers in September, with panellists including Trinity Mirror's James Wildman, News UK's Abba Newbery and the Independent and Evening Standard's Chris Blackhurst. See our events page for details.

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philip bird, senior research manager, bbc future media on 1 Sep 2014
“there's a man who speaks the truth, the nationals block every move towards NRS innovation over the last 20 years, then want to desert to form something new and innovative that no doubt is fit for the 21st century media marketplace.. you couldn't make it up”

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