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Prepared by Dr Clive Corder, Clive Corder Consulting - 2012/01/15

It could be expected that there would be a direct relationship between the number of issues of a publication and its readership. If this is found not to be the case then doubt is caste on the validity of readership research.


Why is it frequently found that when circulation increases readers per copy decreases and vice versa? The reason is simple in that the issues for the latest publication period only represent a proportion of the totality of all issues of that publication that are in circulation. This particularly applies to magazines rather than newspapers, which for the most part have a shorter life. During an issue period both the previous and current issues will be generating readers only a portion of which will be from the latest issue. In the case of publications, which readers are reluctant to throw away, or which enjoy a high pass along readership, the proportion of current issue readers can be quite small. Qualifying new readers can for example result from visits to a medical professional or hairdresser where there is usually a proliferation of back issues of magazines. Dividing the number of new readers of previous issues combined with those of the most recent issue by a higher circulation figure will lead to a decline in the number of readers per copy as compared to when circulation was at a lower level.

In the same way a decline in circulation will lead to an increase in the number of readers per copy. By way of illustration consider the automotive market where the Car Park is the total number of cars on the road. If we consider a model that has enjoyed sales for a long time and then declines in popularity the division of the total number of that make on the road by recent sales figures will show a higher proportion than when sales were at previous levels. Similarly a new fast selling vehicle will take years to build up to having a high penetration in the total Car Park.


There are, however, many other reasons why there can be discrepancies in the use of Circulation and Readership to calculate readers per copy.


The South African Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) is the industry body that regulates circulation claims for print titles. There are as to be expected different rules for Newspapers and Magazines. However, in both cases there are special instructions with regard to what can be included in circulation claims. In addition to the basic situation where a copy is sold at its full price, or bought on subscription, publications can claim for a whole range of other circumstances. For example, under 8. Special Instructions Consumer Magazines, Audit Bureau of Circulation of South Africa, Rules Version: 2.1 Effective Date: July 2011. (ABC web site: accessed 08/12/2011) the following information is provided:

8 Special Instructions Consumer Magazines
8.1 Third Party Bulk Sales (N.B. sold at less than standard cover price)
Bulk Sales of consumer magazines with a cover price are limited to 20% of total paid circulation.
8.2 Bulk Free Distribution
Bulk Free Distribution of consumer magazines with a cover price is limited to 10% of total circulation.
8.3 Controlled Free Distribution
8.3.1 Individually requested
In respect of free titles, single copies supplied to individuals for a stipulated time period, where a sum of money is paid to cover postage costs.
8.3.2 Bulk Requested
In respect of free titles, single copies supplied to companies for a stipulated time period, where a sum of money
is paid to cover postage costs.

What are the implications of this extension of circulation? First of all the availability of additional copies at a lower cost, or free of charge, provides opportunities for an increase in overall readership figures. There is also the availability of copies at various outlets where publications are sold and those which provide copies for their customers or employees. Some of these copies may not get read by anyone, or have only a few readers, whereas others may attract a large readership. Whereas one could reasonably accept that the number of readers of copies that are bought or acquired on subscription would be fairly constant this is less probable with copies that are circulated under less consistent and controlled circumstances. A further consideration is that the number of additional copies that are made available can vary according to business and seasonal conditions. This would then lead to inconsistencies in circulation figures.


The measurement of readership is far from straightforward

In the current AMPS questionnaire respondents are informed that:
The media industry is interested in measuring peoples readership of newspapers and magazines.

They are then told that You will be shown several screens with mastheads of newspapers or magazines on them. I would like you to look at all these mastheads and tell me whether or not you personally have READ or PAGED THROUGH any copy of that publication during the PAST 6 MONTHS.


By "read or paged through" we mean that you personally read or paged through all or part of a copy, including any of the separate parts, sections or supplements which may come with it. It does not matter if it was your copy or someone else's and it does not matter where you read or paged through it. It also does not matter if you or someone else bought it or whether you received it free of charge at your home or elsewhere.

This 6 month filter is actually a status deflation question as it provides an opportunity for a respondent to claim readership of publications to impress the interviewer. The hypothesis being that such false claims would not be carried over to claims of readership during a titles issue period.

For titles that have been Read of Paged Through in the last 6 months respondents are asked about their:

Recency of Reading to see if it occurred in the issue period, and, if read more than once when was this issue read for the first time. This is to counter the possibility of that issue potentially qualifying within more than one issue period.

It is clear from the above that AMPS is actually measuring Opportunities to See an average issue of a publication within its issue period rather than pure readership.

For those who want to get closer to actual reading behaviour there is a question on Origin of Copy where respondents are asked to say whether the last read copy was:

My own copy which I personally bought
My own copy which I personally subscribed to
A copy bought by another household member
A copy subscribed to by another household member
A relative's or friend's copy
An office or work copy

For Store magazines the following options are covered

My own copy which was sent to me personally
A copy which was sent to another household member
A relative's or friend's copy
An office or work copy

How Thoroughly Read can also give a strict measure of readership whereby those claiming to have Read or Paged Through a publication are asked how thoroughly they usually read each publication:

Read right through it
Read most articles and page through the rest
Read some articles and page through the rest
Read only selected parts and ignore the rest
Page right through it
Just glance at parts of it

Further Considerations.

There are numerous additional aspects that can lead to a dissonance in comparisons between Circulation and Readership a few of which are given below

The author worked for several decades with Dr Wally Langschmidt and spent much time debating readership issues. Several of the points given below are taken from Wally Langschmidts excellent Reliability of Response in Readership Research that was published by SAARF and is available on the SAARF web site. Some points come from colleagues and other sources and a number from personal experience.

Publications with higher awareness are more likely to be included as being Read and Paged Through.

Number of copies
Publications with low circulations are more likely to experience variations in their readership than those with larger circulations.

When the circulation of a publication is widely distributed then the proportion of readers encountered in a sample survey is more likely to fluctuate than if distribution is concentrated in a smaller geographical area.

Time of Comparisons
In making comparisons between circulation and readership comparable time periods should be used.

Respondent involvement
Respondents are more likely to give valid responses when they are free to make their own choices. The use in AMPS of Double Screen Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (DS-CAPI) reduces interviewer bias to a minimum.

Masthead Recognition
Confusion is more likely to occur between publications that use the same or similar format, titles and colours.

How Mastheads are displayed
Before the introduction of DS-CAPI, mastheads were normally shown on sheets of paper or on individual masthead cards. A detailed analysis of Readers per Copy for all main newspapers and magazines for the period 1984 1999 showed that the overall readership levels were affected by the way in which titles were presented to respondents.

This analysis also showed that Readers Per Copy was generally higher for Magazines than Newspapers.

Currently 9 Mastheads are shown on each DS-CAPI screen, with a few Dummy publications for consistency, which could be used to test if invalid claims are being made.

Showing a masthead in colour is likely to marginally increase recognition.

Place of Reading
The likelihood of validly recalling whether a title was Read of Paged Through is heavily influenced by where reading took place. For example, paging through a publication at a retail outlet will have less impact than reading a copy at home.

Sample Area Stratification
Adequate samples are required in the footprint area of a publication.

Given the above conditions it is perhaps not surprising that incongruous comparisons between circulation and readership can occur.

All over the world it has been shown that the relationship between readership and circulation is an extremely complex one and that it differs from publication to publication.

In order to understand these relationships, each individual paper needs to be rigorously researched by its publisher and the effect of even the smallest change to any aspect of the publication needs to be understood. In addition other factors such as macroeconomic, social and financial conditions can all impact on readership levels and the effect will more often than not differ from one publication to another.

Langschmidt, W. (1978).Reliability of Response in Readership Research. Johannesburg: South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF).


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