One of the most vexing problems for magazine publishers is trying to figure out just how many people read printed copies of magazines, rather than letting them languish in stacks of unread mail. Other questions have been raging since the dawn of the printing press, such as: How long and often do readers spend reading the pages? Do readers skip around among the articles? Do they read from front to back or from back to front? And does anybody look at the advertisements?
Historically, these have been mostly unanswerable questions, left to estimates and guesswork. But a marketing research company, Mediamark Research & Intelligence (MRI), announced in early December that it is testing radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to measure magazine readership in public waiting rooms. The project is a joint effort between MRI, DJG Marketing and Waiting Room Subscription Services (WRSS) and will launch in early 2008.
The project’s objectives are to determine whether the WRSS’s RFID-driven passive print monitoring system “can reliably measure—in a waiting room setting—the total time spent with a specific magazine issue, the number of individual reading occasions and, potentially, reader exposure to individual magazine pages,” according to an MRI statement (PDF).
The real-world testing follows up a year of laboratory testing. Jay Mattlin, senior vice president of new ventures at MRI, points out that the system needs to be tested “in a non-laboratory setting to determine how well it holds up in this important reading environment.”
As anyone in the retail and consumer packaged goods fields who’s piloted RFID projects can tell you, what happens in the lab isn’t necessarily bound to happen in the distribution center or on the loading dock. Wal-Mart’s and its suppliers’ struggles with RFID over the years goes to show the difficulties inherent in RFID rollouts.
For the lab testing, MRI created an “intelligent” magazine prototype—containing the passive print measuring system—that keeps track of reader activity with designated pages, MRI stated. “Essentially, an RFID tag attached to the magazine sends a signal to a tag reader each time the test subjects turn to one of the designated magazine pages,” it said. “The system records the times of the openings and closings of designated pages, as well as the opening/closings of the magazine itself.”
Mattlin reported that the system correctly identified magazine openings and closings an average of 95 percent of the time in internal tests. “We’ve learned a lot so far in our controlled environment,” he noted, “but considering the complexity of trying to measure a non-electronic medium, like magazines, with electronic signals, it’s going to take a while before we have a firm grip on the full potential of RFID with regard to magazine audience measurement.”
The magazine test group is also facing RFID chip financial hurdles that are similar to those faced by early adopters in the retail and manufacturing supply chain space. According to a Folio magazine article, the hardware costs $20 per unit, which is quite a steep price.
Of course, the most interesting thing to note about this story is the timing: How much value is there in solving the age-old viewership problem as print magazine readership continues to decline, and publishers have shifted most of their focus and content online?