For two years now, buying media had been quite easy for planners with just one media readership currency, the IRS (set up by the Media Research Users Council - MRUC - in 1995), to go by. But in 2010, there is bound to be some confusion when the National Readership Survey (NRS) makes a comeback after disappearing from the scene for two years.
The NRS is released by the National Readership Studies Council (NRSC) - a body constituted by Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA) and the Indian Newspaper Society (INS). But there was a certain advantage in having two surveys. Publishers sold figures to advertisers from the report that suited them best - especially since the NRS and IRS findings were invariably different.
Points of view
If that isn't confusing enough, here is another yardstick planners could refer to. The Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) releases actual circulation figures of publications that have agreed to be audited by the Bureau. There are some who think the ABC figures are tangible, unlike the readership surveys, which delve into intangibles like the quality of the readers. Others feel that readership surveys help advertisers make a better, qualitative choice.
The 61-year-old ABC ruled the roost till 1995 as there was just one currency that dictated where the advertising money went. The NRS did exist from 1956 till 1970, but it wasn't considered too seriously mainly because it was erratic in its frequency. In 1970, the INS decided to pull out from the NRS. It was later revived in 1995, the year that saw the the birth of the IRS.
Readership surveys help advertisers measure the profile of the readers and break the figures down into socio-economic classifications (SEC), age, geography and reading habits. However, two reports only added to confusion as there was not only a huge difference in the figures thrown up by the readership surveys, there were inconsistencies within the same survey itself after each round. As a result, while publishers preferred the report that gave them high readership figures, media agencies conveniently used the one which threw up lower readership figures to bargain for the best deal. The battles were fought with relish.
Also, two surveys added extra burden on the revenues of the publishers, who pay in order to participate. Generally, a large publisher paid Rs 35-40 lakh for NRS, depending on the number of editions it has, and another Rs 20-25 lakh for IRS data. Similarly, a mid-sized media company had to shell out Rs 20-25 lakh for media data from both surveys.
While the IRS charges both the publishers and the media agencies for the media data, the NRS, funded by the publishers, gave media agencies free data. In the end, publishers started complaining vociferously that for the high expense they incurred, they ended up with two reports with identical formats, but which presented entirely different figures. So, what prompted the NRS to come back into the fray? Will it make any difference? And is the ABC relevant at all?
The new NRS promises to be a quarterly affair with an increased sample size of 4.5 lakh (in its previous avatar, the NRS came out twice a year with a sample size of two lakh).
However, there is a dampener. Reports say that the new NRS will be conducted by Hansa Research, the company that conducts the IRS. Not many people like the idea.
Publishers and planners - when quizzed by The Brand Reporter - came up with mixed reactions on the revival of NRS and the relevance of ABC.
Mapping the geography
Even though planners use readership figures, circulation figures are relevant. When the concept of media planning came to India, the ABC was the only guide to measure reach. Moreover, in multiple editions, it was easy to figure out where the circulation was going.
There are others who give ABC a vote. Says, V Radha Krishna, managing director, Andhra Jyothi, "Readership surveys are based on a sample that may not represent the universe to true form. ABC figures are more accurate and can be trusted as they are audited." There are two sides to the coin.
While buying multiple editions, it still is necessary to see the geography. While readership is a demand-side variable and represents the behaviour of consumers, circulation is a supply-side variable depending on the business objectives of the publishers. And this may have different hues. Also, circulation is a single dimensional variable, while readership can be looked at from multiple perspectives such as profile of readers, frequency of readership or the sections (in a newspaper or magazine) read. All this enables more evolved media planning.
It is this reason that has people like Maheshwer Peri, publisher, Outlook, trashing the ABC. "In today's context," he says, "the ABC is totally irrelevant. What matters more than circulation is the quality of audience that is reading your publication. The readership surveys capture this better. We walked out of ABC about four years ago. There are hardly any magazines that get audited themselves by the ABC today."
Spoilt for choice
It normally helps if there is only one currency. Both NRS and IRS have had issues with methodology. With two data points, and with the same format, will it make things difficult for planners?
No, say most planners and publishers we spoke to. In fact, it will only make their recommendations better, was the near-unanimous opinion expressed.
He says, "With two large readership studies one can choose to go with either one of them or both if they so desire, and can afford."
The biggest issue that advertisers, media planners and owners have with the surveys has been their frequency. The much-talked-about-new-look NRS hopes to become a more credible survey in the years to come.
Both Rathore of Jagran as well as Sodhi of Lintas Media make no bones about their preference for a higher frequency. "Adding quarterly research for print will only help better decision making. More and better research is always good for the industry. It will throw up a lot of interesting trends. The world of print media is changing rapidly and continuous research will give a quick feedback of all the developments," says Rathore.
There is a problem that people like Sodhi foresee. According to him, "it will cause publications to be vulnerable to a 'switching' behaviour by advertisers - something that is experienced in TV, where channel swapping is high due to the huge choice of channels available." On the other hand, there are planners who feel that ongoing clients might just choose to go with IRS. They've been using IRS for more than two years now and it gives them continuity to compare the performance over the previous rounds. So it makes sense to go with IRS only.
Some publishers opted for the NRS as a credible source because it is endorsed by industry bodies - the AAAI, the INS and the ISA - but some are not comfortable with the idea of having the NRS being conducted by Hansa Research, the agency that handles the IRS as well. Anant Nath, director, Delhi Press Patra Prakashan and Krishna of Andhra Jyothi feel that it should not be Hansa Research. Both have lodged complaints with the MRUC for discrepancies in the latest round of IRS.
Nath says, "Hansa Research has already come under a lot of criticism in the past for its methodology. We've as such taken the MRUC to court for a lot of discrepancy in their survey. Our publications - Saras Salil and Grihshobha have shown a huge decline in readership and a drop in position. Magazines, as such, are prone to a lot of discrepancy in the readership surveys. As for circulation, hardly any magazines get themselves audited by the ABC. Planners go by their own perspective of magazines."
Asks Nath: "Had readership or circulation figures any meaning, why would The Times of India (TOI) get the bulk of advertisements when Hindi dailies like Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar rank much higher in readership figures than TOI?" Krishna of Andhra Jyothi too finds no rationality in the methodology of the survey conducted by IRS.
"We have reservations with the survey. For example, in Warangal (Andhra Pradesh) the circulation of Andhra Jyothi is much higher than Eenadu. However, the IRS shows Andhra Jyothi's readership in the city much lower. How is this possible?" he asks, and goes on to add a few more points. "In Hyderabad," he says, "the readership of Andhra Jyothi is only twice its circulation. That ratio holds true for English dailies. For language dailies, the readership is four to five times than the circulation. So there is a huge discrepancy in the survey."
In spite of the differences, most people have only one thing to say: "We'll have to wait and watch the methodology the revived NRS comes up with and what new parameters it adds."
Few national surveys in a country of such disparities are accurate and as things stand, IRS is still the best option.