Short answer is: sure. These days you can pretty much lie about anything; even digital magazines sales data. But the real question is: should you, though?
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Many publications, especially in the print industry, have taken to lying about their sales. Having higher sales can usually be equated to higher number of readers and this is what makes publications lie about their sales. If a publication has more readers, they can attract more advertising revenue.
There are many tricks that magazines and newspapers have done to beef up their sales or circulation figures.
For example, they can ship more copies overseas (since issues sent overseas are generally considered sold even if they are rotting on a warehouse somewhere) or they can simply give away issues for free or at a discount to beef up the number of issues printed. There are also those complimentary hotel, lounge or cafe copies which are counted as “sales” but are in fact provided free of charge or at a fraction of the cost.
Falling revenues in the publishing industry have been so severe that some publishers use more blatant scams to ensnare readers. Things don’t always go well though. At the very least, advertisers will realize (albeit slowly), that advertising in a certain publication is not effective and they will eventually decide not to advertise. The worst case scenario is it could lead to arrests and jail time.
Fraud in digital readership
In the field of digital magazines, fudging the numbers can be a little bit more tricky, but it’s definitely still possible.
Aside from the usual accounting tricks that can let you inflate digital magazine sales data, they can lump both paid subscribers and (much larger) website visitors into a category they could call “readers” or if they want to “invest” further in “increasing” their readers. Then they could just buy visits by the thousands!
In fact, during an investigation of a popular lifestyle magazine website’s ads, it was revealed that only 2% of those who viewed a specific video ad was human.
Among all the examples above, there is one thing that’s certain. If your advertisers find out that you’ve committed fraud in your digital magazine sales data or readership and subscription, your reputation is surely ruined.
It would definitely affect your ability to attract advertisers in the future which would take a long time to recover. Make no mistake: beefing up and presenting fake subscriber, viewer or reader numbers is fraud. It’s meant to mislead advertisers into thinking you have a large audience that may like to tap into.
Advertisers want to make sure that every single penny of their advertising budget will be utilized up to maximum efficiency.
Previously, the birth of online ads which are targeted based on interests would have meant that every single ad is displayed only to humans that are interested in the ads themselves. But today, some of the most downloaded apps and browser extensions are ad blockers, which means advertising abuse is still prevalent.
Solution: Circulation auditing
With bots, paid visits, unreasonable discounts and giveaways, how can publications of both print and digital media assure their advertisers that they are trustworthy?
This is where independent circulation auditors come in. These organizations monitor and certify that your subscriber base is as you claim it is. Some of the most well-known of these include the UK’s Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), Spain’s Información y Control de Publicaciones, Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) of the United States, Italy’s Accertamenti Diffusione Stampa (ADS) and Alliance pour les chiffres de la presse et des médias (ACPM) of France.
These independent organizations certify a publication’s subscription base. While being audited is not normally mandatory by law, it’s a form of assurance to your advertising clients that the numbers you present to them are real. After all, a publication that refuses to be audited could be seen as a publication that has something to hide.
While initially, these circulation auditors concentrated primarily on print media, they are now becoming more sophisticated and have started to offer auditing for digital publications in the last few years.
If you think about how widespread buying visits, clicks and views are, you’ll realize how much circulation auditing is even more needed today and having a publication with a certified readership can go a long way into assuring your advertisers.
Even if you can present your magazine app or website’s analytics, these won’t be enough to fully convince your clients. An independent opinion will be the most trusted judgement on the matter.
To answer your first question, yes; it is definitely possible to lie about magazine sales, readership and subscriber data. However, these are just short-term remedies that provide you with too much risk.
Faking subscribers and readership is nothing new. With digital publishing now generating an increasing share of publishing revenues, the same underhanded techniques and tricks from print publishing are spilling into digital magazines.
Digital magazine publishers that want to project integrity can depend on keeping their reporting honest for a time, but eventually an independent circulation audit and certification will be required.