Magazines and Metrics

Everywhere you look in the magazine world people are talking about data and metrics. What kind of data are we talking about? Data on people’s age, their income, their marital status, whether or not they own a dog or a cat or a ferret or a rabbit, how much they time they spend outdoors, which is then broken down even further into which outdoor activities they enjoy most. The list goes on. The data used by different companies is known as metrics. Magazines use key metrics to determine what their audience wants to read and which advertisements to run. Every magazine wants to make money, and in the past publishers strove to create the best content possible in order to sell the most magazines. Of course they had their readers in mind, but they weren’t slaves to data endlessly counting how many “likes” their Facebook page received or how many times their tweet was favourited.

Although data has been collected for years, it was never on the scale that it is today, and it didn’t have the extreme impact on what was published in magazines. Today metrics are used too much and they negatively affect magazine publishing by determining the entire content of a magazine from editorial to advertisements to advertorial. Publishers no longer think in terms of the best content selling their magazines, but rather the content best tailored to their audience to sell the most magazines. The readers have inadvertently become the content creators.

The Print Measurement Bureau (PMB) started collecting data in 1973 and they still collect mass amounts of data today, but the process consists of “a two-stage interview process: a personal, in-the-home interview, followed by a leave-behind questionnaire” (pmb.ca) which is time-consuming and costly. The studies are “based on a national stratified sample of approximately 22,000 Canadians measuring over 100 publications, consumer exposure to other forms of media, and consumer usage of over 2,500 products, services and brands.” (pmb.ca) While this sounds impressive, it is nowhere near what publishers collect now.

Publishers now collect data from many sources, and it is easy to do so as “by one estimate, more than 98 percent of the world’s information is now stored digitally, and the volume of that data has quadrupled since 2007. Ordinary people at work and at home generate much of this data, by sending e-mails, browsing the Internet, using social media, working on crowd-sourced projects, and more.” (theatlantic.com). Companies like Facebook and Google have way more access to data than publishers do through methods like people voluntarily giving their information to Facebook and Google analyzing their gmail users’ emails. Facebook and Google, along other companies of the same ilk, use this information to decide which ads to place where and to whom to direct them. Data has a much more insidious role in magazine publishing: it produces content based on metrics instead of creativity, results in crafted advertising, and produces advertorial, which is literally advertisers paying magazines to write about them.

Publishers have long been thought of and expected to be cultural gatekeepers. Literature is meant to inform people and to help them think more critically. If magazines no longer publish with this in mind, they cannot help but publish tired material simply because they know it will interest their readers in some way. But if you keep publishing the same ideas over and over again, not a lot of new or creative material will emerge. This, of course, excludes news and entertainment magazines, as news magazines publish whatever is current and entertainment magazines publish simply to entertain, and not to encourage critical thought.

People tend to trust what is in print over other forms of media. They know it has been sourced and fact-checked. This means that they unknowingly also trust what advertisements are chosen for the magazines. But choosing advertisements based on readership could have a seriously negative effect. In 2012 the New York Times stated: “Data aggregation has social implications as well. When young people in poor neighborhoods are bombarded with advertisements for trade schools, will they be more likely than others their age to forgo college? And when women are shown articles about celebrities rather than stock market trends, will they be less likely to develop financial savvy? Advertisers are drawing new redlines, limiting people to the roles society expects them to play.”

Magazines are also drawing redlines. They are limiting people as to what they read. One could argue it is up to individuals to read literature that expands their minds and ignore advertisements, but it is all but impossible for this to happen. People have been conditioned over many years to implicitly trust print, especially newspapers and magazines.

With magazine publishers now obsessed with churning out editorial, advertisements, and the dreaded advertorial to conform to their metrics, quality content has been lost. It is now expected and accepted for magazines to have 50% editorial content and 50% advertisements and advertorial. Believe it or not 50% is actually quite a high percentage of editorial content – many magazines are up to 70% advertisements and advertorial.

One magazine that has perfected the art of catering completely to metrics is Vice Magazine. Yes they are enormously successful, but what do they actually publish? Vice has established an empire and “the magazine is [now] less than 5% of [their] total revenue”. (marketingmag.ca). Completely ironically, the previous quote was sourced from an online magazine – marketingmag.com – and the article about Vice is promoting its business model. They espouse Vice’s mantra of creating as much content as possible. But what kind of content is this? In CEO Shane Smith’s own words, the content is shit. He says magazines should ““make piles of content. Make shitloads of content. Music, fashion, food, fucking booze, news, do whatever the fuck you can because all of it is going to be worth money.” The CEO is excited when he hits this part of the sermon: the revelation that Vice’s predilection for “making shit” has become his company’s main revenue source.” (marketingmag.ca)

With the new business model being bowing down and worshipping metrics and relying on them to dictate what editorial content and advertisements to publish, magazines are no longer producing informative and thought-provoking content; it is just a load of crap.

Sources:

“Print-measurement-bureau-canada.” LinkedIn.com. Linked In, n.d. Web.

“PMB Print Measurement Bureau – PMB 2013 Fall Study Overview.” PMB Print Measurement Bureau – PMB 2013 Fall Study Overview. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

Peck, Don. “They’re Watching You at Work.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

Andrews, Lori. “Facebook Is Using You.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 Feb. 2012. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

Gierasimczuk, Tom. “Vice Age.” Marketing Magazine Vice Age Comments. Marketing Magazine, 08 Feb. 2012. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

One Reply to “Magazines and Metrics”

  1. Taisha, you raise a compelling and contentious issue around basing editorial vision on marketing data. Of course, editorial and marketing divisions overlap all the time in publishing, but you seem to suggest that marketing has taken the reigns quite aggressively, resulting in an ever-diluted stream of editorial crap. Some points I thought were interesting: that readers have “inadvertently become the content creators” through data mining, that publishers collect more data on their own publications than the PMB, that advertisers and–by that account, publishers–are drawing redlines in reader expectations because of data mining, and that the CEO of Vice feels that churning out the maximum number of articles makes for a healthy business model. Any of these points could have been expanded into a standalone essay.

    I felt that your thesis could have been more firmly stated in the first paragraph, and it would have been helpful to move the last sentence from paragraph four to the first paragraph, as well. Some of your broader statements/implications could have been met with solid industry examples and citations, in order to avoid assumptions (I don’t think that these statements are common knowledge and you leave yourself open to objection): “data has an extreme impact on what is published in magazines,” heavy reliance on data mining will ensure that “no new or creative materials will emerge,” “people tend to trust what is in print over other forms of media” and so tend to trust advertising, magazines publish as much content as possible.

    It struck me that Madrigal’s article, “A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor” (2013), for The Atlantic could have served as anecdotal evidence to support some of your claims, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-digital-editor-2013/273763/. I would be more convinced that quality content is becoming harder to come by for the fact that fewer writers are getting paid (or paid competitively). But this may be the result of a publishing paradigm shift, from print to digital, which seems to be harder to monetize and, therefore, less profitable. It would have been interesting to develop points on free digital content versus paid print content and the effect of data mining on each. Also, it would be interesting to know the correlation of increased data mining on a publisher’s bottom line, although this type of research might be hard to find.

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