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Research instrumental in creating system for measuring reader feelings about B2B publications

Cahners Publications and Simmons Market Research Bureau developed Affinity Index, a method of measuring the intensity of the relationship readers have with the publications that serve their respective industries. By quantifying reader feelings, the Affinity Index lets publications go a step beyond the usual methods of explaining their readership to advertisers: circulation numbers and/or demographics. To determine a magazine’s Affinity Index, questionnaires are mailed to a sampling of its readers.

Author: Quirk’s Editor Joseph Rydholm

Developing Affinity

It’s no secret that consumers are quite fond of certain brands of products they use. That’s what brand loyalty is all about. But can people feel warmly toward a trade magazine?

They can and they do, according to the people at Cahners Publications and Simmons Market Research Bureau. Cahners, a publisher of numerous trade/business-to-business magazines, teamed up with Simmons to develop the Affinity Index, a method of measuring the intensity of the relationship readers have with the publications that serve their respective industries.

If you’re like most people, chances are you come in contact with several business-related publications. Some are targeted specifically to your job and/or industry; others are more general in nature. And chances are one or more of those magazines is more valuable to you than the others. It could be for the industry news, the features, a favorite columnist, or the ads that keep you up to date on new products-for whatever reason, you like the magazine.

Step beyond

By quantifying reader feelings, the Affinity Index lets publications go a step beyond the usual methods of explaining their readership to advertisers: circulation numbers and/or demographics. These measures show who gets the magazine and what job they have, for example, but they don’t show how the readers feel about the magazine, says Martin Fleming, vice president, planning and research, Cahners Publishing.

“Affinity is based on the notion that measuring the size of an audience by use of a circulation statement or readership studies provides only one dimension of what it is a publication provides an advertiser. What’s equally important is the relationship that audience has with the publication.

“In the past, most research has focused on quantity – that is, the number of readers, the size of the audience – and we think this is the first systematic attempt to measure reader’s attitudes towards the publication. The hypothesis is that the stronger the feelings that an audience has towards a publication, the greater will be the flow of information from the publication to the reader, both the editorial and the advertising.”

Determining the strength of that flow of information can help with a magazine’s strategic planning, advertising efforts, and other marketing tasks, he says.

Similar research

Taking its cue from similar research done in the 1950s in Germany by Gruner + Jahr AG, a publisher of several consumer magazines, the Affinity Index is based on the idea that the relationship between a reader and a publication is multi-dimensional; readers like or dislike a publication for a number of reasons.

Measuring reader feelings has been done on an informal basis in the U.S., but it hasn’t been standardized, Fleming says.

“Advertisers and publishers have long believed that readers’ attitudes towards some publications are stronger than readers’ attitudes towards others, but we really don’t know how to measure that, and that’s what we have succeeded in doing. ”

The system can quantify affinity by measuring reader responses to 16 statements that encompass the various aspects of affinity. Sample statements include:


  • I save issues of this magazine for future reference.
  • Often mark up, tear out or take notes on articles in this magazine.
  • It helps me locate new suppliers.
  • Helps me keep up with trends in my profession/industry.
  • The articles in this magazine are fun to read.

The statements fall into three broad categories:

1. Product Information. Does the publication, both in its editorial and its advertising, provide useful information about new or updated products?

2. Community of Interest. Does the publication help the reader to feel part of an industry and maintain a connection with others in their profession?

3. Usefulness. Does the publication help the reader do his or her job better and provide a source of reference?

Sixteen items

For an Affinity survey, reader responses to the 16 items are weighted together to form an index with an average value of 100, a minimum of 0, and maximum of 200. “Gruner + Jahr recognized that there is no one thing that constitutes affinity towards a publication. What the Affinity model does is assign weights to each item measured that bring it in line with what we know to be affinity,” says Andy Yaffee, vice president, Custom Media Studies division, Simmons Market Research.

To determine a magazine’s Affinity Index, questionnaires are mailed to a sampling of its readers. The three part questionnaires don’t indicate who is sponsoring the research.

The first section of the survey is the affinity measurement portion. Here, respondents indicate their level of agreement with the Affinity Index statements. The second asks about readership of the publication, for example, “How many of the past four issues have you read?” These questions are included because one of the basic notions behind affinity is that it is a measure of reader involvement, Yaffee says.

“So we ask the number of the past four issues read, and even if someone answers the affinity variables for a publication, if we find out later that they haven’t read any of the last four issues, we don’t count their responses towards the score.”

The third section gathers demographic information.

Market segments

Publications receive an overall Affinity Index score and a breakdown by different market segments. For example, publications typically look at readers in large companies versus small companies, or top executives versus other management, or at people working in different aspects of the same field, Yaffee says.

“One of the most important aspects of Affinity is that you can generate different scores for different segments of your audience, so you not only describe your total audience in terms of their affinity towards the publications they read but you can also describe different segments of your total audience. That can be the most profitable piece of the research from a strategic planning point of view because you may find that overall you do well, but that among one or two particular segments of your audience you do significantly worse than average or better than average.”

Two years of research

To develop the system, Simmons conducted two years of background research with nearly 10,000 readers of business-to-business publications. Focus groups were held across the country with readers in a wide range of industries, with the goal of uncovering the variables that make up affinity towards a publication. These groups generated a list of 120 factors that fell into seven categories: value, editorial, advertising, format, organization, qualitative measures, imagery, and psychographics. The groups were structured to obtain responses from readers of publications that prior research had shown had low, average, and high levels of affinity.

The second phase was designed to trim the 120 factors to a more manageable number. “We realized that there was redundancy on the list, so we moved to the data reduction stage, which was intended to reduce that list of 120 items to the key underlying constructs,” Yaffee says.

Questionnaires were mailed to 3,000 readers (1,000 in each of three industries) of a wide range of magazines to get respondents in high-tech vs. low-tech industries, large vs. small companies, and a range of publication formats-tabloid, standard magazine size, etc. The resulting items were tested again in the final phase, a pilot Affinity study of over 5,000 readers across five industries-interior design, electrical engineering, construction, MIS/information management, restaurants/foodservice.

More reliable

Yaffee says that because Affinity is standardized, it offers more reliable data than that obtained from the usual reader preference studies that publications perform. “In a reader preference study, you choose the questions you’re going to ask, and you know what you’re publication’s strengths and weaknesses are. What we’ve heard from (media buyers) is that they often discount the answers they see in reader preference reports because they know that publications are only asking about their strengths.”

Affinity also serves as a diagnostic tool, Yaffee says. “We don’t just say, ‘O.K. here’s your score.’ We also provide crosstabs that enable people to go into the data and to look at the percentages of people that agree or disagree with each of the statements, and to flesh out to the extent possible some of the questions that arise from the research.”

The system can be used, for example, by a publication in a highly competitive market as a “tiebreaker” of sorts to differentiate itself from other industry magazines. Also, publications that aren’t necessarily the biggest in their industry but feel they have strong reader loyalty can use the system to document that loyalty.

“Affinity has really struck a chord with a lot of magazines who have never positioned themselves in terms of the size of their audience but who have positioned themselves in terms of the quality of the publication and the reader loyalty they generate.

“One of the important ideas behind Affinity is that a publication with high affinity will have a better than average likelihood of being read thoroughly and of having advertising seen and advertising used. So for those publications that have really bought into the whole notion of the relationship between the reader and the audience rather than strictly the size of the audience, Affinity has touched on something that they’ve been selling for a long time.”