Report by Erhard Meier

Worldwide Readership Research Symposium 9 Florence 1999 by Erhard Meier, Ipsos-RSL Media and Chairman of the next Symposium in November 2001. (Contribution to the Ipsos Group newsletter, News & Facts, March 2000)

The Symposium is a bi-annual event, organised by Ipsos-RSL and BMRB International. As joint sponsors, Dawn Mitchell, Chairman of Ipsos-RSL, and Richard Silman, Managing Director of BMRB International, welcomed 236 delegates from 30 countries to one of the most beautiful and culturally rich cities in the world. The concluding gala dinner in the Villa Medicea Artemino in the Tuscan hills, and the fireworks that followed it, are bound to last long in our memories, and even – I dare say – in those of the most seasoned conference delegates present.

But what about the papers? The Symposium provides a unique platform to researchers for the exchange of new ideas and experiences and of showcasing emerging trends in readership research. With about a quarter of delegates coming from the USA, the Symposium is an ideal place to learn about what is going on in America, not only for researchers from Europe and other countries around the globe, but for the Americans themselves!

One topic of naturally immense interest was the Internet. Is it a threat to the print medium? What evidence do we have that it “cannibalises” print audiences? And what about Internet research itself – what are the methods, the pitfalls, the needs, the new insights, the problems of definition to start with? The two final sessions of the week-long conference were devoted to the subject, and there were some very interesting papers, including the scene-setting presentation by Scott McDonald of Time Warner Inc.

In the first part of the week, the major subject which provoked lots of concerned discussion, was the problem of response rates. As the title of Steve Douglas’ of The Douglas Jones Group and David Napior’s of Roper Starch Worldwide, paper said: “How low can Response Rates go?” Europeans were astonished to learn how low response rates tend to be in local readership surveys by telephone in the USA right now, many in the 25% to 35% range, some even lower. But is it really time to abandon pre-selected sampling in favour of quota? Opinions were divided.

The rest of the week’s papers may be seen under three aspects – how to enhance the average issue readership measure which we all use around the world, how to improve it and how to compare it with other media. The recent reading model came under renewed criticism, as is the case in all these Symposia, notably by Ron Carpenter of Trinity Mirror and Neil Shepherd-Smith, Consultant. Under the aspect of enhancement, there were papers about the British Quality of Reading Survey (QRS) and about CAPI Double Screen, involving Ipsos-RSL and Ipsos Medias respectively. However, such developments are “only” enhancements, not improvements of the model. So, what improves the model, or what alternatives are there to recent reading? Donald Monk, Consultant presented a thought-provoking case study of the wrong choice of model for a readership study in Canada. Recent reading was wrongly chosen when the right choice would have been the frequency model. However, this was a special case, a medical readership survey. There were only little signs that the major readership surveys of this world are ready to contemplate frequency to replace recent reading. But who knows? The thought has been planted, not only by Donald Monk but also by Michael Brown, the technical consultant to the National Readership Survey in Britain. The latter presented his new book “Effective Print Media Measurement”. This book was commissioned by the Symposium sponsors and it draws on the papers of the preceding eight Symposia from 1981 in New Orleans to 1997 in Vancouver.

Another hot topic was audience accumulation. There seemed to be renewed interest in this subject in Britain, the Netherlands and the USA. Martin Frankel, Julian Baim and Joseph Agresti, all three of Mediamark Research Inc., presented the modelling issues in one paper and method and results of their latest study in another, while Helen Johnston, Grey Advertising Inc., asked: “Weekly Magazine Audience Data, What’s to be Done with Them?” – so the title of her paper. The idea is that reach and frequency evaluation models will take audience accumulation into account, thus providing weekly breakdowns within a print schedule. The expectation is that such data may then also be used in multi-media planning models. However, Helen Johnston reported that there is great scepticism amongst agency planners about how this will work in practice.

The Symposium met its objective. It stimulated, confirmed and challenged. It did not, however, answer the question how we can provide comparable quantitative audience data for inter-media schedule planning. This is the challenge we need to meet.

Erhard Meier’s Summary of Current Readership Research was freshly updated for the Symposium: it deals with national readership surveys in a total of 49 countries. Contact the Secretariat for Copies of this book which are available at £100.