How to Read a BPA Statement and Why You Should

A Tutorial For B to B Media Planners: How to read a BPA statement and why you should

Many people invest in mutual funds without reviewing the prospectus. Others buy stock without reviewing company financial statements. And many marketers invest in advertising without studying circulation statements. Rather than place advertising, these people could more accurately predict their returns by placing chips at a roulette table. But careful review of the BPA audit can help ensure stellar returns that meet and exceed expectations.

Most reputable trade publications provide circulation statements audited by BPA International, an independent, not-for-profit organization founded in 1931. In fact, publishers pay BPA several thousand dollars every year to document their readership and assure advertisers their ads will be read by the proper audience. Thorough analysis of these audit statements reveals important data that, when applied to the media planning process, may strengthen the decision to advertise with a given publication or to invest budget dollars elsewhere.

Let’s examine the BPA statement for Food Processing, for example, and point out where waste may be hiding. At the top is the date of the audit. Simple enough. At the top, right corner is probably the word “Comparable,” telling media planners the statement may compare apples to apples with competing publications.

Next is the “Field Served” section of the BPA statement, stating this trade publication “serves the basic food process industries: meat and meat products, dairy products – milk, ice cream, butter, canned, preserved and dehydrated foods, frozen grain products, flour, cereals, bakery products, confectionery and chocolate products, sugar and syrups, fats and oils, beverages, flavors, pickles and kindred products served.” Clear enough. Conveyor, packaging and flavor companies, clearly, are in the right place.

Section 2 covers monthly reader removals and additions. The total is often consistent month to month. Removing non-qualified and inactive subscriptions is a critical part of every circulation manager’s responsibility. The wasteful cost of sending magazines to such recipients only gets passed on to the advertiser as higher rates. Be concerned if readers are not being removed. That would suggest an inflated total circulation.

The Total Qualified Circulation is 72,066. “Qualified” recipients, in theory, are professional readers with the authority to purchase food industry products and services for their companies. How does BPA know these recipients command power over company budgets? BPA asks each recipient to answer this question: “Which of the following are you involved in recommending, specifying or purchasing?” Readers simply check the appropriate boxes and return the questionnaire.

And how does BPA verify the accuracy of the completed questionnaires? They don’t. Virtually anyone can claim decision-making authority and inadvertently inflate the strength of the circulation. Publishers aren’t very concerned. The larger the number of qualified readers in their BPA statements, the higher the rates they can charge and the stronger they appear compared to competing magazines.

This written questionnaire process, despite its flaws, is considered the gold standard among qualification methods. In section 3b of the BPA statement. a review of the Qualification Source for Food Processing reveals that of the 72,077 qualified subscribers

    only 31,853 were qualified in writing
    40,052 were qualified by telemarketing
    172 were qualified by email or by a Web form

Suddenly, there is less confidence the advertising will, in fact, reach 72,077 readers.

The same section documents qualifications by direct requests made not by the recipient but by either the recipient’s company, by association membership or by non-requested communication from the recipient or the company. These copies were not even requested. Look for each one on the coffee table in the office reception area.

Incredibly, the same section includes a breakdown of readers who were qualified not by request at all but by business directories, association membership lists and “other sources.” Imagine a circulation assistant inputting names from an annual buyers’ guide into the database and consider how qualified are these recipients. Recipients listed here must raise a red flag for every media professional. To the credit of Food Processing’s publisher Putman, all of its readers were qualified directly from the recipient.

Further, the BPA statement reveals how long ago the recipient was qualified, either one, two or three years prior to the audit. 62,634 (86.9) of Food Processing’s readers were qualified within one year of the audit, leaving 9,443 (13.1%) qualified within two years. It is common, even in this age of annual job changes, for publishers to include 5% or more of their circulation as qualified within three years. It would be upsetting to pay precious budget dollars to send ads to people who are no longer with the company. Food Processing earns relatively high marks here.

In Section 3c., the statement documents whether the publisher includes name, title, company and address on its mailing label, or only one part of the contact data. If a subscriber claims purchasing authority for capital equipment and truly wants to receive the magazine, would he or she not be willing to reveal his or her name? Unless the recipient is qualified with the entire name, title, company and address, the recipient is not in my opinion, qualified. One hundred percent of Food Processing’s readers were qualified with the complete mailing label.

Section 3 breaks down the circulation by SIC number, job title and plant size. Pay close attention to the titles within job categories. Packaging Engineers, for example, are placed within Engineering while Packaging Supervisors are placed within Plant Operations. Are we trying to reach the packaging engineer with a breakthrough type of machine or the packaging supervisor with a new lubricant? The more clearly media planners understand the target, the more these distinctions become relevant. Consider the Blue Diamond walnut growers, an advertiser targeting Food Processing’s readers involved in R & D, purchasing and marketing. Analysis of Food Processing’s BPA statement reveals its target audience comprises only 72 percent of the magazine’s circulation. The organization is paying to reach 20,329 plant operations, maintenance, packaging and logistics personnel whose influence on the choice of walnuts, almonds or blueberries in product design is surely negligible. That’s just nutty.

Section 4 covers the geographic breakdown of the qualified circulation. Since everyone knows the food industry is concentrated around Illinois and the northern Midwest, this section seems of questionable value. But look deeper. The BPA documents the number of qualified recipients based in Canada, Mexico, and other countries and U.S. territories around the world. Machinery, container and other companies that may not effectively compete internationally are buying waste circulation. Or worse, these advertisers may need to divert staff to responding to unwanted sales leads. Food Processing sends 5,691 copies outside of the U.S. Like all data, whether this is a negative or positive depends on the target audience and the goals in advertising. But forewarned is forearmed.

And what precisely is meant by the fine print stating to “See Paragraph 11?” Placed at the end of the audit, Paragraph 11 is a catch-all of explanatory notes. Food Processing, for example, includes in its Paragraph 11 a copy of the card given to qualified professionals to subscribe. That is helpful. But ENR – Engineering News Record – states on its Paragraph 11 that “some subscribers may receive one to four issues more than entitled to.” That hardly instills confidence that the advertising is effectively and cost-efficiently reaching the target audience.

Realize the more intimately advertisers know their audience and the more precisely advertisers understand who they need to influence, the more valuable the BPA audit data becomes. Marketers who study BPA audit statements prior to investing in advertising feel confident their money is secure in the most appropriate vehicles.

For more BPA audit information, see For a free conversation about getting more response from your advertising, email paul at or call 908.479.4231.

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