One of the most popular Murphy’s laws goes: ‘If it says - one size fits all - it doesn’t fit anyone’. An adage that would do Media Research Users Council (MRUC) some good, should they pay some heed to it. In their quest for keeping it more relevant, perhaps with respect to the weekly TAM ratings, the MRUC from this year onwards decided to release the findings of the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) on a quarterly basis, as against the previous half yearly cycle.
While the intention might have been noble, one cannot overlook the fact that nothing has been done to amend the previous inconsistencies and flaws in the research methodology of the survey. For a long time now, publishers across the board have raised questions regarding the credibility of the process of data collection and analysis, much of which continues to remain shrouded in mystery. By converting survey findings into quarterly affairs, the negative impacts of their research methodology and analysis will do far more harm to the publishing industry than good.
Foremost amongst these concerns is the issue related to the authenticity of consumer response, given the cumbersome nature of the questionnaire itself. How can one expect a respondent to give accurate or even nearly accurate answers to a questionnaire that runs into more than 40 pages, and takes three quarters of an hour to fill up? When was the last time any of us filled a consumer feedback form that ran more than a page? Given the fast paced nature of life that everyone now experiences, it only seems reasonable to expect that most of the respondents would be filling the questionnaire just for the heck of it, without giving much due thought to it.
MRUC has been questioned repeatedly about the methodology of converting samples to absolute numbers, and MRUC doggedly took shelter behind the ‘Technical Committee’, whose composition and minutes are a highly guarded secret. Neither the publishers nor the advertisers have any clue as to what formula has been used and whether the presumptions are correct.
To compound the problem, MRUC has been persistent in adhering to the ‘one size fits all’ policy of treating the newspaper and magazine readership measurement in the same platform. Magazines by their very nature are high involvement products, but which comes out with a lesser frequency than a newspaper. There is considerable research that conclusively points to the fact that a reader’s engagement with any one particular issue of a magazine that he or she reads is far higher than the engagement with a newspaper. Newspaper reading is more of routine exercise done under paucity of time, whereas magazine consumption is a far more leisurely indulgence and, therefore, a level deeper.
Yet, because of its very nature, newspaper is a product that one sees everyday, almost without fail, while exposure to magazines is more sporadic, high on days when an issue is purchased, gradually falling through as days go by, till the time it again bounces up when the next issue comes in.
So, if I am reader of The New York Times and The Economist, my engagement with any one particular issue of The Economist will be far greater than any one particular issue of The New York Times, because I spend far more time reading The Economist, which I read over multiple sessions and with more concentration, as against The New York Times, which I would read only once during the morning and more as a routine. Yet, in all likelihood, purely with respect to masthead recall, The New York Times would score higher because of daily repetitive visual treat, as against in the case of The Economist. And if someone was to measure my recall on the day before my next issue of The Economist is supposed to come, this gap will be even greater, as I would have already read the previous issue a few days back, while I was treated to The New York Times that particular morning itself. All this, notwithstanding the fact that I remember the content of the any one issue of The Economist far more vividly than that of The New York Times.
To further accentuate this gap between the level of engagements in India, the newspapers here are priced so low that these are bought even with no intention of reading, as the waste value of the old newspaper is higher than the cover price itself. The magazines, on the other hand, are decently priced. Abroad, the cover price ratio of dailies and magazines is between 1:2 and 1:4, while in India, it is 1:10 to 1:20. How can the response about reading both be similar?
In this regard, it might be useful for MRUC to look into the application of principles of Behavioural Economics while designing their surveys. Behavioural economics is that area of study that relies on social, cognitive, and emotional factors in understanding the decisions of individuals and institutions. Blending insights from the field of psychology and economic theory, behavioural economics is increasingly becoming the preferred and more credible approach to understanding decisions and choices made by individuals. In a nutshell, behavioural economics is concerned with incorporating the effects of human irrationality, biases and prejudices that could affect our rational decision making.
With respect to readership surveys, this would mean designing the survey in such a manner that it addresses the paradox of recall of magazines as against newspapers, and also in a way that it gives more weight to the higher involvement in case of magazines. Now, the questionnaire of IRS, in theory, allows for some differentiation by giving a longer time period of recall in case of magazines as against newspaper (one day for newspaper, one week for weekly, one fortnight for a fortnightly, and so on). But in practicality, when the respondent is running through the masthead at lightning speed, all these classifications are rendered useless. The respondent still gives his response on the basis of his top of mind recall, which favours newspapers, and the above classification rather than helping magazines, works against them.
One can clearly gauge the distortion caused by only being obsessed with numbers and metrics, rather than giving heed to the practical and cognitive constraints within which the responses are sought.
Consumer surveys being an inherently statistical exercise, which is an extension of economics, would surely benefit from lessons of behavioural studies. In light of the intrinsically distinct consumption habits of newspapers and magazines, the ‘one size fits all’ approach of MRUC is clearly flawed. With more than 150 magazine titles already covered by the MRUC, and a lot many more that are not included, it would only make sense to have separately dedicated survey for magazines. Admittedly, the survey might be conducted over a smaller sample size, but at least it would be more reliable, unencumbered by the overwhelming baggage of newspapers, and better suited to measure the correct readership of magazines.
(Anant Nath is Director, Delhi Press.)