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At the end of February, David Montgomery, the former chief executive of the Mirror Group told The Drum that Reach is "too embarrassed” to reveal its newspaper circulation figures in its annual earnings report. The Drum digital media contributor Richard Beech (who oversaw social and digital output at The Mirror for two years) explores whether the omission is even a big deal...

The debate itself is tiresome, the digital era has changed the way in which news is written and distributed, audiences seem broadly happy with that - while reaching ten thousand people per day with a print product might make you more money, I’d argue that reaching five to ten times that number with a digital product means you’re providing a better service to your community. Isn’t that what this whole game is supposedly about?

What’s even more tiresome though is the way in which various stats are often used and manipulated to show success or failure. This time it’s a fairly confusing argument about circulation figures vs reach.

I’m 30, at no point have I ever been a regular purchaser of a newspaper. Even by the age of 12 that seemed like a colossal waste of natural resources and money to me. I understand the romantic nostalgia for them, and the enjoyment of buying a physical product, I even understand the enjoyment in the routine and ritual of it. But the reason I became a journalist wasn’t because of paper, it was because of the words on the page, and if those are on a backlit phone screen, then so be it.

But at least in the paper age, we had an agreed metric of success in the form of circulation figures. Having said that… you didn’t really know which stories people were reading, or whether they read anything at all (or just did the crossword), or how long they read an article for, or where they were from, or how old they were, or… well, much at all actually. But we had an agreed figure, and editors could at least use their sales figures to see when a front-page leap off the newsstand and resonated with its audience.

In 2019 we know almost everything. We know all of those things we didn’t really know before (or at least had to undertake market research to be able to estimate).

The fact that Trinity Mirror rebranded to “Reach” is just a tiny bit of a hint to the fact that they are more focused on reach than print circulation. Just a small clue. So let’s take a look at how they’re doing for reach in the UK.

ComScore’s Q4 report on the behaviours of the UK’s digital population claims that there are a total of 49m people online in the UK. It also claims that Reach Group reaches 37m of those people.

That’s 76% of the total digital population in the UK. The only brands that outperform Reach in the UK are Google, Facebook, Amazon, the BBC and Microsoft (Bing etc). Reach outperformed Sky, eBay, News UK, MailOnline, Twitter, The Guardian and Wikipedia.

That’s down to a combination of being early movers in a local-first digital strategy, which got them into a position to buy up a lot of the competition. And having a national news and sports output that millions of people rely on every day.

In light of these numbers, it seems bizarre to me to have a dig at Reach for falling circulation figures (in an era of falling circulation figures). It’s like criticising Manchester City because they don’t like to play the long ball over the top, or criticising Usain Bolt because his marathon time isn’t up to scratch.

But it does point to a wider problem in the industry, which is that there is a general sense of confusion about audience metrics, which has led to a lack of trust and accountability.

With that wealth of audience data we now have, there are numerous ways to skin a cat, and brands will very often pick and choose the stats that suit them best, or will chase success within the easiest stats to manipulate. That’s why everybody pivoted to video when Facebook turbo-boosted the video algorithm, it’s why everybody cared about pageviews when people realised that turning listicles into multi-page gallery posts cooked the numbers and increased ad revenue. Of course, what people weren’t reporting at this point was that their average page dwell time on a gallery article was a fraction of a nanosecond.

Until we have publicly available and transparent metrics of success, as broadly agreed by media owners, clients and agencies, there will always be arguments about who has the most readers, or who has the most loyal viewers. And those arguments aren’t particularly good for the digital media industry as a whole, as we fight for trust and share in the digital advertising market against the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Google.

The good news is that the industry is starting to police and regulate itself.

Tubular Labs has teamed up with a number of brands, including BuzzFeed and Vice, to form the Global Video Measurement Alliance. This aims to add transparency and accountability to video metrics by providing standardised metrics across platforms. I’m sure this was music to the ears of many a CMO or media agency digital director.

PamCo is also a new body aiming to provide accurate audience measurement data for the publishing industry.

We’re getting there, but we still have a way to go. Until we make it clear and easy for the advertising industry to understand our successes and failures, advertisers will approach working with digital media entities with some sense of trepidation.

Richard Beech is a marketing consultant and digital strategist who has previously worked as chief strategy officer at DriveTribe, as well as at BuzzFeed, JOE.co.uk and the BBC.