Data-Driven Publishing: Know Thy Audience
Publishers have long been adept at gathering information about readers and audiences in the interest of producing better content and more effective advertising. But these processes were a lot more simplistic "back in the day" of print-centric magazines.
Then, the information publishers gathered was largely demographic in nature, as in the coveted "18-35 male" demographic. The more recent focus is on behavioral data and psychographic data (things like personality, values, attitudes, interests, and lifestyle). "Now, as we look toward our digital audiences across multiple platforms…we're able to recognize usage patterns, how consumers are absorbing our content, and then translate that information back to advertisers," says Scott Laine, executive director, digital sales and marketing at Bon Appétit.
But access to a glut of data breeds all-new dilemmas for magazine publishers: What information to collect? What's the best way to gather it? And then how do we parse through it, compare it, analyze it, and act on what it reveals?
"Subscribers share information with us, and that data is valuable," says Emilie Harkin, marketing director for Foreign Affairs. "Independent surveys from agencies like Erdos & Morgan also help us understand our audience. Foreign Affairs sells ancillary products—article reprints, issues, books—so we learn about interest in specific areas. And analytics are the most important tool in understanding how visitors engage with our digital properties, like foreignaffairs.com and the iPad app."
Harkin says there's no single pipeline for data to enter the publishing organization. "Data flows from a variety of sources and vendors. It is our job—and this is sometimes our biggest challenge—to figure out how the data puzzle pieces fit together to make a clear picture."
"This is an ongoing challenge," says Harkin, "and working alongside smart, organized analytics and data experts is really the best way to find order in the chaos. I am extremely fortunate to collaborate with colleagues who can see stories about our audiences in lines of raw data."
Data Mining's Bad Reputation
The term "big data" often inspires visceral reactions. Ask taxpayers what they think about the NSA's big-net approach to telecommunications intel gathering, or consumers about Target's 10-percent-off mea culpa when its systems were hacked during holiday season and customers' financial data compromised, and you'll likely receive some definitive commentary.
But public outcry about digital data collection may be anecdotal and focused on the offending brand or agency du jour. It's better to look for broader perspective on the information consumers have already grown accustomed to sharing or conceding.
Laine suggests that consumers are keenly aware of how and why they receive targeted direct mail. "They know that companies like American Express are looking at my shopping patterns, or noted that I enjoy traveling," says Laine, adding that consumers are largely aware that information like this is being gathered. Though aware, their tolerance for it may depend on their opinion of the brand, and the trust they have in it.
The average consumer isn't likely to comment when the data gets it right, enabling the publisher or advertiser to deliver content that's of interest to him or her. But when they get it wrong, it can be painfully obvious to the reader. Think back to social-media experiences: How often do connections comment about a successful ad that's compelled friends to click-through? Rather, more often than not, when users remark on the ad algorithms, it's often to chastise the publisher for serving up ads that are ill-suited to their interests.
Ideally, data should be insightful and enhance the consumer's brand experience, not detract from it. Laine offers a real-world example: "If you log into our recipe-box functionality, we have provided you with a way to save a recipe, which is of use to you. Now, based on what you've chosen to save, I know that you have a preference for recipes with tomatoes. So I am able to provide you with content and advertising for insert-tomato-sauce-manufacturer-name here, or a fresh tomato delivery service in your area. I'm pairing you with content that's relevant to you based on your activities. It is with the best intentions in mind, and we find that most consumers appreciate the fact that we're thoughtful enough to look at what they're doing and acknowledge what they want."
"Big data is just another way to say 'big headaches,'" says Robert Keenan, vice president of online media at B2B publisher Edgell Communications. On a more serious note, he suggests that publishers who are in denial about the importance of mining audience data are not long for this new-media world. But trust is elemental, he adds: "Of course it's up to us to keep that data secure."
It is sometimes helpful to think about how magazines historically gathered insight into readership. "Rewind 10 years," says Keenan. "You wanted to collect information about your readers. What did you do? Well, as a B2B, we went through BPA audits…and maybe throughout the course of a year checked in with a reader survey. And then we'd check back a year later. Now, we're continually checking in with the reader, and the reader is checking in with us. We can monitor—in our case—their technology, their interests, all on a regular basis. They may be interested in topic A now, but six months from now, it could be topics B and C. But we can track that, analyze it, and understand the behavior of our audiences."
The byproduct of that perpetual conversation is that now publishers are collecting massive amounts of data. "The key going forward is figuring out how to mine that data, so that it's turned into something actionable," says Keenan, "and ultimately something that you can sell back to your clients."
Keenan's point is important. After all, data shouldn't only be used to create content readers want; it must be used to compel advertisers, and to help them create more effective, targeted advertising.
For its part, Foreign Affairs has been able to take very specific actions based on data it’s gathered. For example, the publication increased its ecommerce conversion rate for international customers by using data gathered by Omniture to inform its use of location-based Google AdWords.
When it comes to the market for tools that capture, mine, and analyze data, there's no shortage of software and SaaS options from which to choose. Even the early social-media channels recognized the importance of tracking and reporting usage data. This is a mature technology market already.
"For years, tools like Google Analytics and Omniture [now Adobe Analytics], and other web technologies have given editors a lot of insight," says Keenan. "No longer do we just put something out there and hope that by the end of the month it has driven traffic to our site. Now, we want to know precisely how that content was received. How did it perform versus other content? And even more importantly, why did it outperform or underperform, and who engaged with it? I can publish a story that gets 10,000 views, but if they're all the wrong people, what good is it?"
Keenan also predicts that so-called "drip-marketing tools"—software or SaaS that enables marketers to message prospects over a period of time and across digital platforms and social-media properties—will grow in popularity. He cites San Mateo, CA-based Marketo's suite of applications as an example.
One would be hard-pressed to find a magazine publisher who doesn't see the inherent value of understanding readers' behaviors and desires.
At Condé Nast behavioral data guides editorial deployment across complementary platforms, says Bon Appétit's Scott Laine. Readers aren't simply coming to the magazine's website and meandering around, though that happens, too. Rather, their searches and destinations are purposeful and vary based on time of day, says Laine. For the publisher, this requires astute content delivery—in the case of Bon Appétit, users may come to the site for new information or lifestyle features, or they may be in search of real tactile directives, such as what to make for dinner.
A specific behavior and objective, like going to the site in preparation for dinnertime, may then prompt that same user to tap into the content via a mobile device while shopping for ingredients, or a tablet edition to see how the dish became part of a menu in a feature story, or to see how it was beautifully plated. "We are able to provide readers with the content that they want, when they want it, and then be able to provide them the type of advertising content that's relevant to those particular moments in time," says Laine.
Again, this isn't flagrantly different than what happens with print. "[Advertisers] are mindful of what editorial is adjacent to their ad unit, and they have specific criteria about that adjacency—to content or other advertisers. All of this is thought out, planned out, and it should not be any different from the digital perspective," says Laine.
Ads Driven by Data
Laine qualifies Bon Appétit's advertising base as "the full cornucopia of types of clients"—meaning, the publisher isn't only working with big brands and big agencies: "Some are significantly more sophisticated in the way that they approach media, and the way that they approach us.
"It all depends on when you begin the collaboration," he continues. "We have some brands [with which] we begin communication strategies six months before we ever begin flighting anything. An example: We've developed an upcoming program with Edward Jones, a financial company out of St. Louis. Their agency has been very proactive in working with us, and really wants to dive into understanding exactly who our audiences are…and aligning with editorial content. You'd hope that all of your advertisers would eventually take that sort of initiative, but of course, not every brand can."
Publishers should also expect increasingly tech-savvy marketers that come to the table with data of their own in-hand. "They come to us with their own research and data," says Laine. "And they want validation that there's overlap in the way they're reading their research and data, and how we're using ours to activate our audiences. If we can validate that for them, we can build plans off of that."
Leads, Leads, Leads
There's another distinction in contemporary publisher-advertiser relations that results from all this new access to information. Marketers are looking to publishers for a better, service-oriented value proposition, according to Edgell Communications' Robert Keenan. "They want some perspective around the leads," says Keenan. This is an important development. No longer do marketers simply want publishers to deliver captive audiences and eyeballs. In the B2B space, at least, Keenan said they expect magazines to deliver "sales-ready leads"—leads that are targeted, qualified, studied, and known to be ripe.
According to Keenan, "Customers are saying to us, 'How can we move this down the pipe more, because I've got to cut my costs? I've got to show that I can get those sales-ready leads more often and quicker. What can you do to help me get them?'
"Yes, [advertisers] want more of the right people; they want them engaged, and they want it all for $10 a week," Keenan quipped. "Therein lies the publishing challenge of 2014! But that's what B2B publishing has always been about. Here at Edgell, our lists may not be as big as others, but our audience is highly targeted and qualified. So there are other B2B publishers who think like us, who put in the work to generate the audience and create an environment that keeps them engaged. If we're not committed to that as an industry we're going to be in trouble."
Gretchen A. Peck is a publishing consultant and freelance journalist. She's covered the international printing, publishing, and advertising industries for the past 25 years, and holds a Master's Degree in writing and rhetoric.