Cair Lerion Blog #11: A short(ish) guide to readership and circulation in printed trade media

Text by Jonathan Rowland | Photo by Britta Jackson from Pexels

Trade media. It’s an odd world containing a huge number of titles that appear – at least to the outsider – spectacularly niche and yet trundle on, sometimes apparently oblivious to the dramatic changes happening the wider media world. Life is however getting harder for these publications. Many now make a home online only, having ditched the costs and other complications of print. They also face increased competition from their own potential advertisers, who can now easily act as media outlets in their own right.

Yet trade media continue to represent a potentially important avenue of communication between B2B companies and their potential customers. And with its claim to journalistic independence – at least superficially – they can provide valuable exposure for companies looking to reach a certain market. (Full disclosure: I was editor of a number of trade publications for over a decade and still write for a small number of titles.)

Of course, there is also a lot of drivel out there. So how do you tell the difference between a valuable media partner and a waste of paper and ink? It starts with the readers. These are the potential customers a company is looking to reach when they engage with a media title. The quantity and quality of a magazine’s readership is therefore the key factor in assessing its worth for both editorial engagement and advertising.

In this blog, I’m going to deal with some of the things to look out for when looking into the readership claims of a print magazine (although the principals are the same when assessing any media outlet).

Readership and pass-along rates

Quantifying readership sounds easy. Most publishers will release a figure for the number of people that read their magazines. Most also break this number down in a number of ways. For magazines published internationally, this may be by geography. It could also be by particular subsectors or readership categories within its particular industry. It all looks very helpful… so the first thing to keep in mind is that it is in the publisher’s interest for the readership figure to be as high as possible.

One traditional way to make sure the headline readership figure is as high as possible (while not bearing the expense of printing and distribution many more magazines) is to take a pass-along rate into account when calculating readership. This simply assumes that every printed magazine is read by more than just the subscriber. So, if 5000 magazines are sent out with a pass-along rate of four (i.e. four people in total will read the magazine), the total readership is going to around 20,000.

In itself, this pass-along rate makes sense: it is certainly a time-tested tactic in the world of publishing. And in the age of the internet, the pass-along rate is relatively simple to objectively track and calculate. But with printed materials it is harder and relies much more on the transparency of the publisher. The best will use regular readership surveys to try and determine the pass-along rate for a given publication. They’ll also publish their pass-along rate with the readership figure, as well as saying how they worked it out.

There is nothing wrong with using a pass-along rate to try to determine readership. But it is worth noting that they are always estimates – and I’d argue they are more likely to be over-estimates that under-estimates. Consider that, unless the reader survey makes particular effort to reach a random cross section of readers (expensive), respondents are more likely to be those enthusiastic about the magazines than those who place it, unread, in the recycling pile. This is likely to give an exaggerated impression of the pass-along rate.

It is OK to be sceptical about the claims that publishers make about readership – and to interrogate them on the assumptions that underlie them. A publisher should be able to stand up to such interrogation and justify how they came to their number. If they cannot, remember that it’s not difficult to simply make the pass-along rate up, knowing that most will be unlikely to question it.

Being certain about circulation

So much for the pass-along rate. What about the other number readership is based on: circulation. This sounds so easy. Surely it is just the number of magazines a publisher sends out.

Well, yes, at least in principal, but…

Ask yourself: where is the publisher getting their circulation number from? There are generally two options. The publisher could simply release a number on their own authority (a Publisher’s Statement). Or the publisher could rely on a third-party organisation, such as the UK-based Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) or BPA Worldwide in the US, to audit and verify their circulation figures.

(Another option – and one I came across only recently – is for the publisher to release copies of the most recent invoices for printing and distribution as a way of proving the number of magazines that were printed and mailed – see here, although the invoices linked to from the page are now several years old.)

Notwithstanding the above, publisher’s statements are just that: statements by the publisher. This is not to say they are wrong. But that there is no way of verifying their veracity. You simply have to take them on trust. Which makes them much more open to manipulation than audited figures.

In contrast, an audited circulation is one that has been verified by an external auditor to meet the standards of the audit bureau to which the publisher belongs (the International Federation of Audit Bureaux of Circulation maintains a list of such organisations). These standards should be available for you to read and question – such as those from ABC. An audit will also result in some form of audit certificate, a treasure trove of circulation information, that you can request from the publisher or from the relevant audit bureau.

Digging for treasure

An audit certificate holds all sorts of opportunities to drill down into a magazine’s circulation – and to better assess the quality and relevance of that circulation to your business. For example, both ABC and BPA Worldwide certificates indicate how the publisher has come by the names to which it sends its magazines. For example, whether they be paid subscribers or free circulation. Or whether that free circulation is to people who have requested to receive the magazine or who are just being sent the magazine because the have been identified as relevant (either by name or job title).

You’ll also be able to see who the publisher classifies as relevant recipients of the magazine (the qualified circulation). And the geographical breakdown, showing where in the world those receiving the magazine are based.

This level of detail may not be for everyone. Nor are circulation audits perfect. But when it comes to assessing the useful readership of a trade magazine, they offer an objective and verifiable measure – more so than other options. And if you have the time and patience to track through them, they offer a valuable insight into the publications that might offer the most return on investment – be that in terms of time or advertising spend.

Bonus distribution!

A final note on the extra distribution of magazines at trade shows and conferences. There’s no doubt this offers a potential boost to the readership for the issue in question. But again: it is important to think critically about any claims as to the size on that boost. Unless a magazine is given out as part of the conference literature to every attendee, no publisher can guarantee the number of magazines that will be picked up as against those that are simply recycled at the end of an event.

And even if they are a part of the official event literature, ask yourself how many are actually read. As depressing as this is for anyone involved in the world of trade media, I’d wager that a good majority end up – unread – in the recycling bins and trash cans of conference venues and hotels.

These are often also the issues that attract the most advertising and editorial contributions – which makes any particular contribution much easier to miss by the those who do actually take the time to read (or at least flick) through the magazine. So while trade show and conference distribution may look good on a publisher’s media kit, as with everything about circulation and readership, you don’t need to buy the hype. What works for the publisher is not necessarily what will work for you.

Conclusion: Readership as marketing

This may all come over as decidedly cynical. Perhaps overly so. I also don’t mean it to be an attack on the world of trade publishing, although some might read it that way. Rather, I hope that explaining the various vagaries of readership and circulation, this helps you to better evaluate the utility of the publications in your industry. It effectively boils down to this: readership and circulation figures are ultimately all weapons in a publisher’s marketing arsenal, deployed to make their magazines more attractive to buyers of advertising. It is therefore right to treat them exactly as you would any other marketing claim.

Jonathan Rowland is founder and principal at Cair Lerion. With over a decade of experience working for a variety of trade magazines covering industries such as mining, building materials, ports and shipping, he now offers specialist copywriting and editing services in the heavy industrial space. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.