It wasn’t that long ago that PR and advertising professionals in the B2B sector spent a lot of time pouring over the latest ABC or BPA circulation audit figures. Ten years ago, online media was still taking off and so print really mattered. Today things have changed, with many companies – particularly those from the USA – demanding that all advertising should be online because it is more measurable. Although I still believe effectiveness should be the main criterion for advertising decisions, and the majority of revenue for some publications is still print advertising, it’s clear that across the world publications are inevitably moving towards online distribution.

But we’re not there yet. Some people still read print and it remains an effective place for advertising. I’m not going to pretend that the average new graduate spends the same time reading print magazines as I did in the year after I completed my engineering degree, but without doubt some engineers still want to receive a physical magazine. In fact it can be argued that print readership is holding up the best among older engineers: the senior decision makers that advertisers so desperately want to reach. Many people also believe that publications are bulking up their print circulations by including less-valuable readers as “no one wants to read print now”. Securing reader registrations is hugely expensive, so I can see the logic behind this, but a quick check of the latest audit will answer these questions. Despite this, I hear people mentioning circulation audits a lot less frequently: so do they still really matter?

I decided to take a look to understand what has happened over the last 10 or so years. I quickly found a copy of the BPA audit for Electronics Weekly from 2005 – just over 10 years ago. Has anything changed? You bet it has!

I quickly flipped through the media pack and was transported 10 years in the past when I saw the paper request form reproduced in the report. I also looked ruefully at the free circulation of 41,573 (and a further 329 PAID readers!), of which 21,393 received a hard copy of the magazine. This is somewhat larger than the current 23,861 circulation of which only 10,150 receive a print copy. I’m not pointing any fingers at EW: I picked them as they were the first circulation audits I laid my hands on, which is probably more of a reflection of the title’s long-term importance in the UK market, and other magazines show similar trends.

What about the other things that are accepted truisms about magazines? The most striking thing was the Executive Management/Board Director category: this has jumped from less than 10% to 20% of circulation. Yes! If you want to target these senior decision makers, there are actually MORE of them receiving Electronics Weekly today than in 2005. So the theory that magazines are a great way to reach senior people today seems to be true. To be fair, the question about the time readers have spent in the electronics industry is no longer asked, so it might not be a reflection of older people wanting to read print; it might just be that reading Electronics Weekly gets you promoted more quickly! (EW circulation team – feel free to use that one).

Of course we all know that one thing that publications do is to send multiple copies to their advertisers. It’s a cheap and easy way to bulk up circulation but, for Electronics Weekly at least, it’s just not true. In fact the percentage of readers in sales and marketing roles is roughly the same today as it was 10 years ago – so the absolute number has been cut by about a half. So clearly there’s no cheating there, and the percentage of readers who are customers is pretty consistent: at least it is for Electronics Weekly.

So what about quality. I have to admit that the “Service/Maintenance” category of EW readers has always confused me. It’s a component magazine, not a repair and maintenance title, yet in 2005 around 4% of readers fell into this category that is probably not valuable to most advertisers. Perhaps this is where the publishers have got some easy circulation? Well no. In fact the number of readers in this title has been decimated, and is now just 2% of the circulation. That myth about lower quality doesn’t seem to hold water any more!

Products that people use haven’t actually changed much in the last 10 years. Today Power Supplies are the number one product over which readers have “Purchasing, specifying or design-in influence”, with passives and then batteries following. In 2005 the order was connectors, relays & switches, passives and then power supplies. Life is, however, less fun today, with under 3% saying they influenced the purchase of business travel and entertainment, whereas almost 10% of the 2005 readership had that opportunity.

There is one major difference in the audits, other than the total circulation, and that’s the number of readers who requested the publication in the last year. Today it’s around a third, in 2005 it was 100%. Now this is where I have to admit that the reason I could quickly find a copy of the 2005 audit for Electronics Weekly was that they had just re-qualified all their readers. I think that the stats for previous years were similar, if not worse, than today. So maybe it’s not a fair comparison.

I decided to do this analysis when someone sent me the following table of circulations:

UK electronics magazines circulation audits 2017
Circulation Audits – UK Electronics Titles 2017 (click to enlarge)

This shows the number of requested subscriptions, broken down by the age of the request. So almost all copies of Electronics Sourcing are sent to people who requested in the last year, whereas others are in single digit percentages. In 2005 advertisers would have paid a lot of attention to this table, so does it matter now?

I think it does. But there are some big caveats. Firstly this simple analysis doesn’t discriminate between individual requested and company requested circulation (if you want more information on this, please email me and I’ll write another post to explain). The top publications in the table have fairly high percentages of the less-valuable company requests. But even so, the difference is striking. Clearly some publishers no longer believe in circulation audits (despite paying not inconsiderable sums for the audit, whereas others are pushing hard to get “good numbers”. Although the headline numbers only tell part of the story, and more analysis is needed, perhaps it is time for advertisers to brush up on their audit analysis skills.