Magazines: forget eyeballs, it's attention that matters

11 May 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Magazines: forget eyeballs, it's attention that matters

Attention and emotion are the forces that drive memory encoding into the brain - exploiting it could help turn the fortunes of publishers around, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: ignoring GDPR

I’m getting a clear sense that the magazine industry is at last clawing its way out of the door to nowhere, where the sign reads: "Help. Print is buggered and we don’t know what to do".

The evidence of a new-found confidence was in plain sight at last week’s PPA Festival at Tobacco Dock. You can read Mediatel’s summary here and more here from Campaign.

It’s a combination of things: PAMCo levels the playing field and underpins that feeling of optimism.

Centaur CEO Andria Vidler outlined how not just her brands in the B2B space, but others like What Car? and Future’s recently acquired home interest titles were at the forefront of an e-commerce shift. This, she said, was all about turning passive readers into active consumers. Since magazine brands are based on communities of interest, there are many titles that can follow the same route.

This is a good way to frame the shift, although I can’t help but feel concerned that it places magazine brands in a compromising position. Let’s put it this way: the temptation to pull editorial punches in pursuit of an e-commerce sale is dangerous. Trust is a big plus for magazine brands, and if they mess with it the ramifications go all the way to the bottom line.

And the transition is fraught with difficulty anyway, as Condé Nast found with its disastrous – and mercifully killed off – attempt to compete with the likes of Net a Porter.

More encouragingly, I also see a general move away from the indiscriminate pursuit by magazine brands of eyeballs – eyeballs for eyeballs’ sake – in the vain hope that this would give scale and attract new readers. This trend was characterised by the relentless pumping out of content via Facebook and other social media channels, and best seen in the form of dishonest clickbait headlines.

Did it work? Did it hell. You just have to watch smartphone users listlessly flicking through their feeds to see what a waste of effort it was, not to mention the 4% drop in magazine brands’ digital revenues last year (AA/Warc).

Truly, eyeballs represented a false god. Arguably it is (not ‘was’, because they’re still not out of the woods) the root cause of the huge gap between the perception of magazine brands as advertising vehicles and the reality, as uncovered a couple of months ago in a fascinating study by Ebiquity.

But if they’re not selling eyeballs, what do they sell? At a Magnetic session on challenging biases, Mike Florence, chief strategy officer at PHD, offered a simple solution: focus on attention.

Like newsbrands, this is what magazine content is all about – good content, not clickbait, anyway – and as Florence says, attention and emotion are the forces that drive memory encoding into the brain. This is reinforced because a) magazines score highly on emotion and b) in (most, but not all) magazine brands, advertising is part of the overall experience, and perceived and welcomed as such by readers.

There’s plenty of work to be done, both by publishers themselves and collectively via Magnetic, which organised the bias session.

And, judging by the AA/Warc figures released at the end of April, they need to get a move on. These showed ad revenues down (print and digital) 11% in 2017 versus 2016, and an ongoing, if marginally less precipitous, forecast slide of 8.6% this year. This will have two effects – first, to concentrate the mind on a better way to sell magazines as advertising vehicles, and second to accelerate the development of e-commerce.

GDPR: 11 days to go and I’m ignoring it

Like all of you, I’m sure, I have been bombarded by GDPR consent requests from publishers, banks, utilities and any organisation I’ve done business with.

My first reactions: one, bloody hell, it’s come around fast; two, aren’t these people leaving it a bit late?

My third: how much chaos will ensue, and how much time is the ICO giving organisations to get their houses in GDPR order?

Thanks to Addictive’s Simon Andrews for drawing my attention to this piece on Reuters about how unprepared many national regulators are.

I ask because I haven’t responded to a single consent request. I feel I ought to – if only for professional reasons – but I simply can’t be bothered.

If I feel like that, and I have a better understanding of GDPR than the average British citizen, how low are consent rates going to be? If there has been much public service advertising from the ICO about GDPR, why it matters and what giving consent means, then I’ve missed it. And that’s not good.

But the real question is whether this really matters to the advertising community. I originally thought it did. So did others. Some media agencies have also been predicting a spike in CPMs as advertisers chase a small pool of fully consenting adults, although whether this is based on solid intelligence or just a smokescreen for hiking costs I don’t know.

As time has gone on, however, I’m not so sure whether it does matter. There’s two reasons for this.

One, everybody makes a big deal about a new Holy Grail – personalisation at scale. But they didn’t mean personalisation as I understood it – i.e. based on an identifiable me – as opposed to tighter targeting or micro-segmentation based on refining and cross-referencing my data points but without the need to identify me personally. That being so, consent is, if not irrelevant, only of marginal benefit.

Two, where is the evidence anyway that genuine personalisation (i.e. where under GDPR I will have to give my consent) is either what consumers want or is effective?

That is not to say GDPR will prove a monumental waste of time, or a knickers-in-a-twist like the Millennium Y2K bug. Over time, I believe it will help consumers understand the role and value of their data better, and probably drive out some bad actors in the ad and marketing tech sectors. These are only good things.

But a wholesale shift in the way online advertising works? I don’t think so.

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