Update: As Stuart from the BPA points out in the comments, it’s not correct to say PWC is auditing media firms, it’s more a case of them helping companies understand their internal and external data.

Original: Just as Coleridge’s marooned sailor proclaims there is water everywhere but not a drop to drink, the media industry is drowning in measurement metrics, without knowing which ones are useful.

Leading B2B publisher and events group United Business Media UBM today announced it was to take its Built Environment titles in the UK – including Property Week and Building – out of the Audit Bureau Circulation, as Press Gazette reports.

In what should have very loud alarm bells ringing for media metrics bodies and publishers that put faith in them, Built Environment will now audited by receive data from Pricewaterhousecooper (PWC), in a system similar to the Average Daily Global Audience measure that uses (please note the helpful clarifying comment from Stuart at the BPA below – PWC is technically not auditing anyone). Unlike the ABC, which splits online and print into different sections, the PWC’s methods measures both print and online and does not count duplicates (someone who reads the title online and in print in the same day).

ABC chief executive Jerry Wright tells TheMediaBriefing: “We are extremely disappointed that UBM have taken the decision to withdraw titles from ABC membership. A crucial point to remember is that the industry has developed universal standards to allow publishers to report across print and digital platforms for good reason; to give media buyers trust in publishers claims.

But what of the accusation that ABC is still reporting on an analogue world, in a digital age?

“ABC already offers media owners both standards for auditing not just print copies, but also websites, digital editions, email campaigns, exhibitions and events and the opportunity to present all platforms in a single report. As the media landscape continues to evolve, ABC will continue to meet the needs of the industry and its members.”

Following the user

ABC has adapted to provide digital numbers, but it’s about more than that these days. On top of just user numbers, PWC will collect demographic info on users – things like job role and which reading devices are the most popular – i.e. information that journalists and marketers can use every day to improve services.

UBM Built Environment exec Nina Wright tells PG: “We’ve been talking with our customers about how we measure and present our audience for the last 18 months to two years… We’re not alone in this.”

Indeed they’re not. Two senior B2B execs in rival publishers I spoke to today said they had sympathy with UBM’s position – although both were keen to say that auditing can work, particularly in competive markets.

In the newspaper world, News International left the ABC audit in April 2010 ahead of its paywall project. In addition to the Financial Times’s PWC auditing, the FT has an entire team of people to analyse and interpret subscriber and user behaviour across its many digital products and products.

For consumer magazines, there is no real alternative that can match the scale or advertiser trust of the twice-yearly industry-wide report.

But for such a complex media landscape, the ABC reporting methods – which segment by medium, not audience – look increasingly outdated. An internal ABC re-organisation in March to further integrate print and online operations didn’t do much to solve that wide-ranging problem.

But, still, for magazines and newspapers across the land, in more or less every market, the ABC has an unassailable lead in the measurement game. To achieve audit status is still considered a press release-able event. As long as ad buyers are only impressed by large numbers, that will always be the case.

More than metrics, online and off

How long can we go on counting these arbitrary numbers and selling on the basis of inaccurate, misleading numbers? Until recently, newspaper sales departments sold ads with paid-for circulation figures boosted by thousand upon thousands of copies being given away to airlines, hotels and offices (a chief offender, the London Evening Standard, took this to its logical conclusion by going free entirely, with commercial and journalistic success).

And in digital we have the same issues. The phrase “unique users” is still a leading currency of online publishing, sold to salespeople as if they represent a number of actual readers. But in reality it measures nothing of the sort. Measurement systems based on tracking cookies can overestimate traffic by up to four times, as econsultancy reports.

As journalist and publisher Ben Hammersley memorably put it at the APA Summit last year:

“I work mostly in an industry which is really based on bullshit. Readership figures, listener figures, viewer figures, all the things that the media has been based on for the past 100 years or so have been exposed to be mostly made up..”

Just like UBM, many publishers are beginning to realise that understanding who your audience are is more valuable than simply knowing how many you have.

But on the other hand, as @CJMaill puts it on Twitter: “When publishers say ‘it’s not the number of readers, it’s the quality of response’ actual numbers are an embarrassing nuisance…”

What’s the way out of this? What are the innovative and intelligent ways to measure audience and reach? Please leave me a comment below if you think you know.

Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee, Via Flickr on a Creative Commons licence