The absence of the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) since 2019 is causing significant challenges in determining the reach and effectiveness of newspapers in India. With no updated readership data available, publishers are unable to present updated numbers and are relying on the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) data, which lacks the comprehensive insights provided by the IRS, as per print media publishers.
Moreover, media planners and advertisers are concerned about the credibility of the medium without a readership currency and the potential disadvantage it poses in negotiations.
Shashank Srivastava, Senior Executive Director, Marketing and Sales, Maruti Suzuki, emphasised the importance of IRS as the only study with a large sample base, enabling a granular understanding of media habits and offline channels' role in consumer purchase journeys. The absence of IRS is impacting media spending decisions and hindering the ability to demonstrate reach and target specific market segments.
For the record, GroupM India’s TYNY report of this year stated that the share of print in the Indian adex is estimated to be around 10% at Rs 14,520 crore in 2023. Its share in the Indian adex was 11% in 2021 and 2022 at Rs 12,067 crore and Rs 13,519 crore, respectively.
Also, as per EY’s latest report on M&E sector, print advertising revenues grew 13% in 2022 as print remained a “go-to” medium for more affluent and nonmetro audiences. The print subscription revenues grew 5% on the back of rising cover prices and has stabilised at 15% to 20% below the pre-Covid-19 levels.
Abhishek Karnani, Director of the Free Press Journal Group, said that the last IRS came out in 2019 and there has been no readership data since then.
“So, why are we not showcasing the current data? Publications are only taking ABC data wherever the numbers are good but wherever there has been a fall, people should accept it. We are living in a new world and it is perfectly fine to do so. One should showcase the real numbers and it should be shared with the advertisers as well,” Karnani stated.
“In Mumbai, FPJ is the only English newspaper that has taken the ABC certificate,” he added.
Meanwhile, Shreyams Kumar, Managing Director, The Mathrubhumi Printing and Publishing Company, said, “Fortunately for us, Mathrubhumi is the only daily that has been growing according to the latest ABC, while every other publication is losing readers. Media planners have a way to link circulation numbers to the readership, that’s in our favour. Also, the fact is that Kerala is a two-newspaper scenario. The rich Northern part of Kerala and markets with affluence like Thrissur are Mathrubhumi bastions, while at the other places we offer a strong competition to others.”
“Our efforts have been to educate agencies and advertisers about the realities of Kerala which also include the need for advertisers to view our market uniquely and not follow the practice of media vehicle selection as they do in other parts of the country,” he added.
Varghese Chandy, Vice-President, Marketing, Malayala Manorama, said that measuring reach is key to understanding the effectiveness of a medium. Media effectiveness is central to determining budget allocations in each market.
“We have always advocated the need for print data and continue to do so. Not having a mechanism to measure media effectiveness will prove detrimental in the long run. The absence of a readership currency will affect the credibility of the medium among the media planners and advertisers. It also gives undue advantage to media buyers in negotiations,” he added.
IRS is one of the largest sample media studies in the world and the only one in India which enables a holistic view of media reach and gives some inputs on cross media interactions. Kerala continues to be a print-dominated market and the circulation of newspapers is still very high. In fact, Kerala was probably the only state where the distribution of newspapers was not affected even for a single day during the pandemic, Chandy stated.
“We were allowed to distribute newspapers even in micro containment areas. But with the considerable drop in circulation in metros, media planners have a view that the same would be the scenario across the country. Our primary challenge is that since we do not have a readership study to prove otherwise, it has affected media spending on print,” he stated.
According to R Venkatasubramanian, President - Investments at Havas Media India and Managing Director - Havas Play, "Without access to IRS data, we lack precise information about the newspaper readership data. This makes it difficult for us to estimate the extent of our reach within our target audience through various publications. Consequently, when formulating a plan, we cannot provide an exact measurement of its reach and must rely on our experience and industry knowledge."
"Currently, we rely on outdated IRS data as a guideline for planning purposes. However, having up-to-date IRS readership information is crucial for effective brand planning," he added.
Furthermore, he went on to say that ABC figures play a crucial role in assisting media planners and buyers in obtaining an accurate representation of a publication.
"Through ABC Figures, we can easily comprehend the publication's strength in terms of circulation in different cities, enabling us to tailor our plans accordingly," he added.
How crucial is IRS for the marketing industry?
Shashank Srivastava, Senior Executive Director, Marketing and Sales, Maruti Suzuki, said that the IRS is the only study after Census which covers a large sample base of over 2 lakh respondents at individual and household level, across urban and rural pop strata and at key reporting units in each state.
Furthermore, he stated that understanding media habits at such a granular level of audience and geographic cuts is not available with any other research data. Despite digital's growth, there are still many categories that depend on offline channels as key contributors to a consumer's purchase journey. Here, the role of print continues to be important.
“IRS is the only readership survey in India and the database not only helps in making an effective and efficient choice of print vehicle but also evaluates a print plan across markets and audience tracking. While TGI is also going to include rural data with 12,000 samples and it could give the indicative media habits/and consumption of rural India, but it won’t give us publication-wise readership,” Srivastava said.
Furthermore, he added, “There is no study in India that covers Bharat as in depth as IRS. The offline research methodology also helps in removing bias from the research which sometimes tends to set in with research that is administered online.”
IRS enables a media house to demonstrate reach in a target group, relative advantage over other mediums, provide data on media consumption in each market along with product penetrations and general consumption trends, Chandy stated.
Kumar said, “IRS surely has provided advertisers with the option of understanding newspapers beyond just the overall numbers. For example, the percentage of our readers belonging to the affluent section of NCCS is higher in comparison, so is the ownership of certain products that indicates affluence.”
Karnani stated that publications can't go back to the advertisers and show them 2019 data, which is the pre-covid data, and compare it with post-covid data. Advertisers are also asking for the current data. “In the era of digital, where we get yesterday's data, how can we ask someone to rely on 2019 data? We need to have some sort of metrics to tell the advertisers. So. let's talk to the advertisers as well and tell them that the print numbers are also back,” he added.
Has ABC become an alternative method for publications in absence of IRS?
“In the absence of the IRS, the only other metric available to the industry is the ABC. But within the ABC, we see that after the onset of the pandemic, many publications have opted out. So, a direct comparison is not possible. Even otherwise, the ABC would not be able to establish the reach of a publication in specific segments,” Chandy said.
While the ABC data follows an external audit process to certify the number of copies, it is not an alternative to IRS which measures reach and gives an understanding of each market – preferences, product penetration, affluence, demographics etc, Chandy stated.
Also, what ABC does not give is the segmented reach as it only provides geographic reach, he added.
Meanwhile, Kumar said that, “We believe in offering value to our advertisers. Because of our unique structure, we have been able to bring all our assets, our rapidly growing news TV, Mathrubhumi News, Kerala’s no.1 FM radio network, Club FM, and our thriving digital and social media ecosystem under one umbrella and create a concept called #GatewayToKerala where we deliver almost 82% of Kerala’s media consumers to advertisers in comparable CPTs upon which they were earlier only buying a newspaper. These eye-opener efforts are yielding results for us.”
Srivastava said that currently there are two challenges, one is the absence of recent Census data that is used for extrapolating the sample to population. However, this can also be addressed.
“The larger issue is the need for consensus amongst advertisers, publication houses and media agencies to recognise the void that the absence of this database is creating and fund the research. ABC is not a substitute for readership. It is just a distribution measurement metric for the medium but not for consumption,” he stated.
“Sales data can only indicate the current consumption or purchase pattern of a brand but propensity is a function of audience availability and IRS helps to address that gap at both urban and rural market level,” Srivastava added.
Controversies surrounding methodology and alleged lack of transparency
Chandy believes that as the IRS is a sample survey, there will always be room for controversy but the quality was improved considerably in the last few rounds by increasing the sample size, controls on field work and strong data validation. This can be further improved in the future surveys as well.
Kumar believes that any extrapolated research will always have its plus and minuses. It is like the 30 day-cookie based audience selection in digital. The consumers’ interests may have changed, but marketers still keep talking to them, resulting in wasted impressions. Similarly, a masthead-based question can also have its downside.
“However, if the currency produced under the largest global research sample size with its statistical validity is by and large accepted by the fraternity, I feel this a good way forward while the technical committee and the leadership team responsible for the survey can always take feedback and make changes. This is a process and it will keep getting mature,” he stated.
Challenges arising when attempting to measure print media in absence of IRS
Karnani said, “We have to get back our metrics. In such a situation the publications are not able to give a clear picture to the advertisers. In some markets the numbers have come down but in some markets the numbers have also come back up to the 2019 numbers. Moreover, as of date, print is the most credible media.”
“All publications, agencies and advertisers should be a part of MRUC (Media Research Users Council) and we should find a solution together to this problem. Advertisers are not getting efficient ROI and this is not a healthy situation,” he added.
Chandy said that while attempting to measure print reach using ABC, one will not be able to account for the number of readers per copy.
“In strong print markets such as ours, the IRS data clearly shows the multiplier effect that a single ad insertion can have since there are multiple readers of a single newspaper,” he added.
Kumar stated, “We have a magazine called ‘Arogya Masika’ which has 26 lakh total readers - making it the single largest health and wellness magazine in the country in Malayalam. Such hidden treasures would never come to the front without these researches. This would perhaps have also died a slow death in the overall story that magazines are losing their sheen. But today advertisers are happy to commit resources on the product.”
Meanwhile, Srivastava believes that IRS helps in cross media reach understanding at a town level as well as at a urban or rural market level. The absence of readership data hampers the understanding of print media effectiveness in reaching media goals.
“The database helps to understand specific edition versus all edition dependency not just in terms of readership but mapping it against district or town propensity to consume a brand or category. This further helps in bringing buying efficiency on the medium,” he stated.