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Should IRS include title-level digital readership numbers?

As news consumption moves to digital from print, it's time for IRS to equip itself to provide title-level readership numbers. But will the move help publishers get better ad rates or would the digital numbers have an adverse effect on print ad rates? BestMediaInfo analyses

The Indian Readership Survey (IRS) 2017 said that only 4% of the total reading population reads newspapers online only. The figure may look small now but it is expected to increase at a phenomenal rate in the next few years.

With news consumption moving online, it is time IRS should provide title level figures for both print and digital platforms. The Media Research Users Council’s (MRUC) top brass had hinted at the launch of IRS 2017 that it could be done in future editions, once the capacity is available to capture the numbers via standard currency and publishers are willing to have consolidated readership numbers.


The advertisers are of the view that all kind of readership should be captured. They say that it should be a newspaper readership survey and not just a print readership survey. But are the publishers supporting it? Do they fear that digital could dampen their print ad rates?

"The younger generations are reading news, but it's all online. The older generation used to enjoy the whole buffet of news, but now it is more about customisation and the younger ones are finding it easily on the digital platform. Had they released the title wise data for digital, it would have helped the print companies big time," a top executive of a major telecom sector company said.


He said it is finally a readership survey, not a print readership survey. “Wherever the readership comes from should be captured.”

A major national publisher counters this by adding that the 50% of 16-19 year olds read the offline newspapers in one month (against 38% in 2014), while 42% of 20-29 year olds (34% in 2014) read it. “This clearly shows that the readership from the younger age groups is also significantly growing. We are not witnessing any major impact because of digital readership.”

Sanjeev Bhargava

On a similar note, Sanjeev Bhargava, Director, Brand TOI, felt that enough digital measurement is available. When asked if combined figures from IRS would have helped, he answered, “Yes or no. The online medium is already fairly accurately measurable, through comscore, pay-per-click advertising and many other measures of impressions, click throughs and visits. I don’t know what an IRS can do in terms of measurement, which will be more accurate than these numbers.”

But IRS could have brought the online and offline readership on a common currency. Bhargava doesn’t feel it would have helped either. He added, “On the contrary, people might not give credence to it, because they have a far more accurate electronic measure to map the entire universe, rather than a sample. IRS is at the end, a sample-based research, with dependence on extrapolation. The comparability does not exist really. So, I doubt if that would have been very useful to the industry.”

NP Sathyamurthy

NP Sathyamurthy, Chairman, RSCI Technical Committee, pointed out, “But every survey is based on sample, there is no census on anything. My point of view is that we don’t need a census on digital. We only need to capture the popularity of anything along with profile of users, be it for a product or medium. Both are important.”

However, it must be understood as to why then the IRS2017 did not merge the digital and offline readership for the publications?

Ashish Bhasin

Ashish Bhasin, Chairman, MRUC, said, “A certain bare minimum sample is required to make the data stable. At the moment, you could do it at a consolidated level, such that how many are reading online, out of the total newspaper readers. It is possible to study digital readership on a title level, but at the moment, with this sample size, it is not feasible, else you can’t do justice to the print.”

So is it that the quality and quantity of the sample need to change, so as to analyse and study digital readership?

Bhasin said, “The quality of sample has to be constant with proper representation of all sectors of the society, else the study will be biased. Also, at the moment, the consolidated figure is at 4% at the national level. I don’t think title-level digital readership will make much sense as of now, on a national level. It has to rise a little more so that the data is not too skewed.”

About scaling the sample, Bhasin said, “It is about how you design your research. This research was designed to capture readership inherently on the print side, as it starts growing bigger, we must capture more granularity in the digital readership too. But first, we have to take the sample larger, though it is already world’s highest sample ever but for this it will need to be significantly higher over the last year. And that will have a cost.”

But has the core committee tried enough to include title-level digital readership in IRS2017? Sathyamurthy said it was never planned in this edition of IRS. “On level one, we wanted to capture the medium-level information for all media more accurately and hence we changed all medium to one-month level. I know that other title-level online readership surveys are being done. We didn’t want to digress from the core of the scope of IRS and therefore we didn’t want to get into title level in this edition.”

However, Sathyamurthy believes it should be done and will be done in the near future, depending on the interest of the stakeholders.

He explained, “Also, IRS is a face-to-face interview, while title level numbers, in my opinion, should more be captured digitally. On digital, the title might not get registered in a lot of cases and might not be able to recall. The modus operandi for IRS, in its current form, was not very amenable to capturing title-level digital readership.”

Understandably, IRS 2017 did not start off with the intent to capture the digital readership, but if this figure comes out, say in the next few editions, will publishers welcome it with open arms? Also, will the industry approve of it?

Sathyamurthy said, “If we are able to offer robust information, everybody will welcome it. In the current methodology of IRS, all stakeholders were involved in the process right from day one. If the industry at large believes it will be useful, we will capture the information because it is a very widespread study.”

A senior media observer in the industry commented how a couple of major industry players did not support the title-level readership survey. “Investment is not necessarily the reason. They feel that it won’t benefit them. The logic is that print rates are higher than digital and if measurement tells otherwise, then it will spell trouble.”

Pradeep Dwivedi

This is true that the rate per reader varies exponentially for the two media platforms. However, digital can still be a parallel revenue stream for the publishers and authentic third-party measurement numbers will only help. Pradeep Dwivedi, Group CEO, Sakal Media Group, said, “It will absolutely benefit the publishers. 4% aggregate numbers shows the headroom for growth, especially in the regional market. For example, for Sakal, the app and website are highly in demand. We need to do a lot more to gain that readership and it is a focus area for us.”

As for ad rates, he explained, “It's a different ecosystem. The digital advertising pricing today is completely dominated by the likes of FB and Google in terms of the revenues and rates. The rates of any digital publishers are not comparable to those in print. The formats are essentially different. What tends to carry through is the differentiation between English and regional content. If English print was priced at 1.5x of regional print, a similar scenario is true for digital too.”

Explaining from the national publication’s point of view, Bhargava pointed to another crucial aspect. “There is a fundamental difference in the two media platforms as to how advertisers use it. I believe that digital is a search-based, choice-based medium. Therefore, advertising displayed on the internet world is choice-based, not what we call ‘accidental collision of advertising’, which happens in print. So, a person intending to buy in a category will encounter advertising pertaining to that category through content relevant to that category. But the non-intender is unlikely to encounter that advertising.”

By this logic, digital medium singularly will fail to achieve the target when an advertiser wants to create absolute awareness or salience for your brand/ product. “Print can give this over a short span of time or TV can get you over a longer stretch of time. Of course, there will be some cannibalisation, especially from the un-informed marketers. But largely, it is a combination of media platforms that work the best,” added Bhargava.

It is also true that the revenues are shifting from traditional media platforms to digital, though the numbers that are shifting are very small and hence all media platforms are still experiencing growth. So, will digital readership measurement push this shift from print to digital?

Dwivedi said, “That diversion is already happening. If you see the expansion of digital budgets, it will definitely be happening at the cost of the other media platforms. In a few cases, the advertiser has increased his spends. But mostly, it is about restructuring the media plan. If I was doing X and now I am doing X+Y. Digital revenues are another delta for me, say Z. It’s not at the cost of print. It is supplementary revenue.”

Speaking about this impact in the long run, he added, “Print will continue to grow for some more time. Maybe in the next 8-10 years, we might see that print is not growing, but digital is. In the long run, publishers will have to prepare for the digital world and revenues will perhaps shift to digital. Immediately, if you ask me, as a consequence of IRS, I think the publishers need to focus on their digital product so that it is relevant to the subset of the audience that is going on that platform.”

About the shift of advertisers and increase in ad rates, Bhasin believes that ad rates are directly proportional to the eyeballs and where they are moving. “On a second level, it is about supply and demand, if you have limited ad space, then it’s about who can pay more. IPL gets huge rates, because there are only 60 matches in 45 days.”

Digital is generally a very measurement-friendly medium, such that each and every platform owner – including Facebook and Google, the big ones – can have the exact statistics of the action and interaction on their respective platforms. However, the need for third party measurement has long been felt, and that is what will give the remedy for ad frauds and measurability glitches.

As Bhasin explained, “Over the years, the industry has agreed on two metrics – circulation and readership. Then, currency was finalised as AIR and now we have decided for AIR and TR. On TV, too, we have decided on a certain currency. Likewise, we have to agree upon the same for digital. Some people are measuring CPMs, some are measuring unique visitors, some time spent and others. The industry needs to sit down and agree to a common currency for trading.”

In 2016, multiple media reports had mentioned how the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) was ready with a pilot on digital readership. But it has not seen the light of the day till 2018. But if ABC can have a set-up and infrastructure ready for it then why not IRS?

Sathyamurthy said, “It is a newer measurement, newer metric. It needs a lot of data validation and verification. I am sure a lot of intelligent people are at work. When we asked for additional subscription monies, the industry was supportive and I am sure investments should not be a problem for this too. When there is a good idea, money is always there.”

“In many meetings of IRS2017, title-level digital readership was proposed and discussed. Many publishers did not agree for the sake of avoiding transparency. No matter what the theory says, advertisers might take IRS’s digital numbers as a crutch to negotiate on print ad rates. Digital is showing an increase in readership of newspapers and their websites and this should be captured and reported. Plus, print is still close to 10 times the digital ad rates and the publishers don’t want to take a chance on that,” said a senior advertiser.

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