The Data Evolution: How Publishers Are Using Data to Become More Audience-Centric


Magazine publishers have always trafficked in data about their audience, but recently it’s become abundantly clear that smart publishers are getting more sophisticated in their data management, and using it to better understand, grow, and monetize their audiences. Data has become the accelerant of choice for an industry long confident in its ability to curate engaged audiences around content, but struggling to translate those audiences into dollars in a Post-Magazine Era. (Some may question that we’re in a Post-Magazine Era, but that term is not intended to suggest the magazine is dead — only that it is no longer considered the source of long term growth by most publishers.)

When we held the Publishing Executive Live: Summit on Redefining the New Media Company in September of last year, we set out to examine how publishers are reinventing the traditional publishing model to become new media companies that thrive across many channels. One of the panels, “Transforming into an Audience-Centric Enterprise,” focused the conversation on how publishers are moving from a product- or channel-centric mindset to an audience-centric view. Panelists were probed on how an audience-centric mindset enables them to create new product offerings for clients, and develop more sustainable profit centers. Quite often the conversation came back to the role of data, and its tendency to illuminate an audience in new ways and improve strategic decision-making.

Is the idea of being audience-centric a new concept? Yes and no. What have magazine publishers been all along if not savvy audience developers, attracting volumes of eyeballs to relevant sponsorships or marketing campaigns? Yet much has changed since the emergence of online and digital publishing. Once-whole audiences have been fragmented across devices and platforms. It’s become a necessity for publishers to “find” their audience everywhere. Meanwhile digital platforms have ratcheted up the opportunities to capture data of many sorts.

It’s fair to say that data is at the nexus of the challenge and opportunity presented by the Digital Age. And leading-edge publishers are launching new products based on insight gleaned from analytics, creating better solutions for their clients, and funneling audiences to revenue driving products with greater efficiency and less audience fatigue. Following is an excerpt of the aforementioned Publishing Executive Live panel, highlighting how publishers are using data to become truly audience-centric enterprises. Featured on the panel were Brendan Monaghan, general manager of Slate; Andrew Clurman, president & COO of Active Interest Media; and Andrew Reid, president of Hanley Wood Digital.

What It Means To Be Audience-Centric

While Active Interest Media (AIM) may look like a special interest magazine company from the outside, with 50 different magazines in 5 genres, from inception, the mission of the company did not culminate with magazines. According to Andrew Clurman, president and COO of AIM, the goal of the Boulder-based company has always been “to find great legacy brands in special interest markets…and then build digital events and services around those, depending on the audience interests and needs.” In almost every case those great brands turned out to be magazines.

Clurman says the special interest magazine business in and of itself is not a great business, but the audience opportunities that come with special interest are what make AIM so vital. Audience is the springboard. “We looked at the markets that we liked where there’s a critical mass of passionate people who have an intense need and interest in information and buy a lot of stuff, then we started reverse engineering and asking, ‘What else could we do? What other needs could we serve? What other services can we provide? What kind of events would they like?’ That has created an incredibly robust business.”

AIM is constantly looking at the audiences comprising the five groups (marine, outdoor, healthy living, home, and equine), and considering what individuals are buying and what they need in terms of community and information. “That really drives our product development and business development. That’s been really the growth vehicle for the business.”

Slate, which has been around for nearly 20 years, still derives a good deal of its traffic from its homepage, attracting people that keep coming back for more. “They want to see what Slate’s talking about,” says Brendan Monaghan, general manager of Slate. “They want to see not just what’s in the news, but what is Slate’s take on the news.”

Monaghan oversees the company’s business development strategy, as well as business operations, including finance, human resources, and marketing. In his role, Monaghan leads Slate’s efforts to identify and build non-display and “loyalty based” revenue. In 2014, Monaghan led the team responsible for launching Slate Plus, which is Slate’s premium paid membership initiative intended to deepen the relationship with the site’s most loyal and engaged readers.

Keen to its audience’s preferences, Slate gives serious consideration to what’s going to appeal to readers and how they are going to consume content. Mobile is a growing part of that consumption, and creating the channels that make Slate’s content most appealing is a priority for Monaghan.

Andrew Reid, president of Hanley Wood Digital, says that Hanley Wood would be ill-defined as a B2B “publisher.” While Hanley Wood serves the residential and commercial design and construction industry, the revenue breakdown of the company simply doesn’t reflect how publishing companies have traditionally earned their keep. In other words, it’s no longer a predominately magazine channel operation. “When you look at the revenue of the business, about a third relates to our trade show business, a third is digital and data, and a third is more traditional print revenues.”

Reid sees the “audience-centric” issue from the audience and client perspectives. In his role, Reid leads the strategic development of the company’s innovative digital media products, a key component of Hanley Wood’s vision for growth. To achieve its goals, Reid says Hanley Wood has been working on changing the sales culture of the company over the last few years — particularly for its sales team.

Instead of walking in with loads of print magazines and large PowerPoint decks and pushing products, Reid wants sales to focus on listening to clients and developing audience-centric solutions. “There’s a big cultural change on our part to try to no longer talk about products…but to have an active listening perspective, to listen to clients’ needs, and deliver audience solutions. When we talk about a client perspective, that’s the difference between being a product-centric solution company, and an audience-centric solution company.”

Reid acknowledges that in terms of the reader perspective, that Hanley Wood’s editors and trade shows have always been audience-centric, trying to engage an audience with relevant content. “The big change from our perspective is we’re in such a revolution right now related to data, in terms of insights from the audience about everything that they’re interested in, what they’re engaged with, what they’re not. It’s taken a lot of the guesswork out of understanding what audiences are looking for. Ultimately, the trick is how do we turn these mounds of data into audience insights, and ultimately drive the product developments within Hanley Wood?”

Aligning Data & Talent Strategies
Publishers are finding it necessary to adjust their talent strategy and hire for the skills that will make their organizations more data- and audience-driven. “I’ll look back to the last five to ten hires that we’ve made, spanning the organization — almost all of them have some sort of data specialty,” says Reid. “We have a team of three people whose sole focus is testing our email templates, day in and day out. Likewise, the last three editorial hires we’ve made have all been SEO specialists…who really understand who’s coming to the site, how they’re engaging, where the entry points are, where the exit points are, what’s working, and what’s not. That’s driving [engagement] much more than the instinctual approach that our editors have historically taken.”

Reid also noted that data literacy not only reveals greater insight about what you should do more of, but also what you should stop doing to achieve greater efficiency. You can get a better sense of what’s not resonating with your audience, says Reid. “For us, the first thing we stopped doing was building custom apps for devices. It just wasn’t working, and our audience was telling us that repeatedly in the data.”

Reid says that data can also help you get more economic impact for each piece of content you produce. “You almost have to think about it like a factory. What is the expected ROI you can achieve on any given article or around any given topic? You wouldn’t be producing cars if there wasn’t a demand for it on the other side. We’ve got to take that kind of numerically-driven approach to our business as well.”

The Metrics of Engagement
Clurman says his monthly staff report keeps growing to include more audience metrics, from pageviews, visitors, and time-on-site, to social media engagement and video views. The metrics show how the audience is moving and engaging, and what market segments are growing.

Monaghan says that with the launch of the Slate Plus premium program, the company can more closely track its core audience. “That has allowed us to really focus on a key paying segment of our marketplace, and understand what they’re engaging with, and what they’re really experiencing.” Monaghan says Slate is also watching the engagement level of audiences with custom content initiatives, rather than sheer volume of pageviews for display ads.

Launched last year, Monaghan says Slate Plus is intended to engage Slate’s most loyal and committed readers with additional content, such as additional access, discounts, early access to tickets, and free podcasts. “For us, the first metric obviously is those who are willing to pay. But the percentage of folks that signed up for an annual [membership] far exceeded the monthly signups, which is really compelling for us.”

Monaghan says that by looking at the metrics around the Slate audience’s engagement with audio also compelled the publication to increase its podcast output. Monaghan admits that although this may sound anecdotal, the data informs website and product development and allocation of content production resources. The data answers important question about Slate’s audience: “What should we be thinking about? What’s resonating with people so much that they’re willing to pay for it? Those are some of the examples that we’ve seen that are really compelling in forming the broader strategy of the company.”

Clurman agrees that audience data can yield important revelations about serving an audience. To bring it all back to the idea that being audience-centric is not a new idea, just an evolving one, Clurman says looking at the analytics has led AIM to reevaluate its direct mail strategy. During his days in consumer marketing for the circulation department, Clurman says he’d scrutinize the ROI on direct mail and the circulation revenue for a given person over the life of her subscription. Now with expanded products and services, AIM is updating this strategy. For example in the equine division, a single person may subscribe to a magazine, buy a ticket to an event, and buy a book. “As a result of that — which is a little maybe counterintuitive or counter to trend — we increased our direct mail spend about 40% from the historical average in the company because looking at the return on that across the whole spectrum, we saw that we were really under-spending.”

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Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.