There has been much talk over the past several years about newspaper brands moving away from traditional metrics, such as paid circulation and readership, and finding ways to better measure the total brand footprint for the title or a series of titles. 

In theory, the concept of better understanding exactly how many people a brand touches sounds logical. But it turns out the majority of buyers so far don’t seem to be ready to purchase advertising that way.

In just the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two reputable newspapers attempt a combined brand reach number. In both cases, the total number boggles the mind. Imagine a newspaper with a circulation of 200,000 delivering a combined network of impressions in excess of 10 million. Does that seem reasonable?

It is baffling to imagine what a number in excess of 10 million actually represents. Digging deeper, I find it may include newsletters, print circulation, Web site traffic (various sources), and potentially a myriad other metrics. In the industry rush to bring together a total audience metric, we have totally ignored the duplication factor facing the industry. In doing so, we find ourselves measuring not apples and oranges, but also bananas and Volkswagens — does anyone care? There is probably a benefit in having all the newspaper circulation, audience, and Web traffics in one place. However, there is less value in attempting to add them up into a total that is difficult to comprehend.

Currently, advertisers are quite willing to buy newspaper print and digital assets. So far, though, very few advertisers buy it as a total audience or footprint, not even considering things such as related Web sites, newsletters, etc. Most advertisers still consider the various pieces as separate buys. Even newspapers have not done a great job in selling these as related and bundled offerings at a set bundled price.

In Canada, Comscore is the leading measure for digital newspaper Web sites, while NADbank is the leader in measuring print audience, and both ABC and CCAB (a division of BPA) measure mainly circulation.

I currently sit on both the NADbank board and the BPA Worldwide Board. Both of these associations are currently struggling with this very issue, namely how do they move past measuring print circulation and/or audiences and move fully into better understanding the brand footprint?

In essence, they are trying to figure out their survival by being the first or the best in bringing reliable audience data to the buyer in the future.

In my opinion, NADbank has the best chance to pull this off in a confined geography, due to its survey methodology. But the NADbank approach falls apart when the audience outside the core market comes into the equation. At the same time, audit firms are unable to realistically count or add the various channels without a registration system. For example, just what is a unique user? It’s surely not a person. When you factor in multiple devices (I have at least six) and cookie deletions, it becomes nearly impossible to link unique users back to a real audience number.

All of this is further complicated when you look at the competitive factor. In past years, circulation or readership was the right metric because we were competing with other newspaper brands. In the digital world, we now compete with uber-local Web sites and blogs, as well as with global players such as Google and Facebook. What relevance is our print audience in that comparison?

As more newspapers move to metered Web payments, it is possible that paid circulation users might actually be back in favour. Maybe adding up the number of households willing to pay for brand content across various platforms might actually matter to buyers. Is this a step backwards or a step forwards? Time will tell.