Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series from Susan Currie Sivek on magazines and analytics. Click here for part one.

Magazines have made major strides in integrating multimedia production into their existing production processes. Digital projects that used to be tacked on to print content are now, in many cases, seamlessly developed at the same time.

Even better, some magazines are looking at analytics data to better understand how their audiences are using their content, whether it’s on the web or in an app. That more sophisticated information is helping some magazines use their resources more effectively and serve audiences’ needs. And, of course, advertisers also love these analytics as proof of readers’ engagement, though the measures aren’t yet perfected. Could more skillful use of analytics be the key to the long-term success of digital magazine publishing?

Using Resources Well

Reader’s Digest uses analytics to refine their digital products. Surprisingly, sometimes that means scaling back digital efforts, not expanding them.

Like other publications, Reader’s Digest considers which stories would be best brought to life in multimedia formats, and which shouldn’t.

“Some stories we like to leave up to the reader’s imagination, because we feel like video wouldn’t complement the story, and the reader could come up with more vivid images on their own,” said Kerrie Keegan, managing director of content operations for Reader’s Digest, in a phone interview.

But another important step informs the multimedia decision making: Reader’s Digest also collects and considers analytics data.

“Data helps us redefine strategy on a daily basis. With immediate access to analytics results, we can change our approach up to the minute we release our content on our platforms,” Keegan said.

Available for the Reader’s Digest website and apps, these analytics offer editors insights into readers’ interaction at a “micro level,” as Keegan says. For example, it’s possible for editors to see when, on average, viewers stop watching a particular video. There are also interactive surveys built into the Reader’s Digest apps to gather reader feedback on the fly.

“We’re constantly forming the content to the analytical feedback. That can determine not only what extra digital components a story gets, but also how long a story is, the headline of a story, who our target audience is,” Keegan said. “It not only develops the extras, but also helps us determine the content itself.”

Reader’s Digest often creates videos for its Everyday Heroes stories. Keegan says these videos are a good investment, in part because they will be “just as relevant 25 years from now.”

Although it might be tempting to throw the full array of digital enhancements into every publishing platform and see what sticks, analytics data have helped Keegan and her team refine Reader’s Digest’s approach to each of the eight (and soon to be 10) platforms where it’s distributed.

“We watch numbers on each of these platforms and determine what platforms can have a rich workflow and rich experience, and where we want to enhance the content with video. We also have replica editions where people are happy with just a flipbook,” Keegan said. “We make decisions on a per-platform basis [by considering] the return on investment of any of these.”

That in-depth knowledge has led to not only enhancements, but also to simplification of Reader’s Digest’s digital products.

“It’s important to not only look at where you should be enhancing, but also [from] which platforms you should be pulling back a little bit,” Keegan said.

She explained that her team removed some animations and interactivity from the magazine’s mobile phone and Kindle Fire editions, though those features remain available in the iPad edition.

“We have been evaluating that, through our reviews and survey feedback, and people aren’t actually missing them that on that platform,” Keegan said. “It’s important to see the use of time, money and resources, and see where you can cut back without threatening the product.”

Analytics for Everyone

Mike Haney of Mag+

Mike Haney of Mag+

Not all magazines have access to this level of data from their websites and apps, of course. Digital publishing company Mag+, among others, has included analytics in its publishing tools. But Mike Haney, Mag+’s co-founder and chief creative officer, says that the industry has some work to do to make these analytics universally valuable.

“All of the different platforms — not even just production platforms like Mag+, Zinio, Adobe DPS, but also Apple versus Google versus Amazon versus Next Issue — all of those have a different set of analytics and metrics that can be obtained. Those really differ widely. It’s one of the core challenges for anybody trying to publish in this space and across those markets,” said Haney in a phone interview.

For its part, Mag+ decided to use partner companies to handle analytics, including Flurry and Localytics, as well as Omniture, which is already in use for web analytics at some publishing companies.

“We always felt for the digital magazine industry, for these analytics to be used for monetization, it would be important to remain independent of that and to turn that capture over to a third party,” Haney said. “We’d hope that the magazine industry would agree that this provider, or this set of providers, is an approved provider. When this one tells us it’s a pageview, that’s a pageview. We feel it’s easier to get to that kind of standardization when it’s third party than [based in a specific] platform.”

Through a combination of these providers’ services and the basic details offered by app stores (like Apple’s or Google’s), publishers and editorial staff can glean a lot of information that can be used to refine their work. For magazine apps, here are some of the possibilities Haney listed, which vary depending on the chosen platform and analytics provider:

  • Number of app purchasers
  • How many active users of the app
  • New and returning users
  • Time of day of use of the app
  • Length of sessions of app usage
  • Session length for subscribers and non-subscribers
  • Time spent per issue
  • Time spent on an article
  • Scrolling activity within an article
  • Clicks on links in ads and in editorial content
  • Clicks on videos and other interactive features

And, of course, these data points can be combined and filtered in many ways to get deeper insights into readers’ behavior.

Haney says he “evangelizes” for the use of these data by magazine editors as they make decisions about what content to produce. It’s possible to tell which investments in multimedia and stories have paid off in audience engagement and which haven’t.

“People still ask the question, ‘What kind of interactivity is good?’ You’ve got a quantitative measure right in front of you in the [analytics] dashboard,” Haney said. “It’s extremely useful for editors, and designers as well, to understand how people are using these things they’re creating. … Are they reading those 3,000 words? Those don’t have to be uninformed arguments. We have these kinds of data.”

Getting those data could seem daunting, if editors fear data might reveal their work is unseen and unloved. Yet Haney says that many editors are happy to receive more insights.

“They don’t know any more than anyone else what they’re doing in the tablet space. They know they’re doing their best trying to put together an issue with enhanced design that they think will look good, and they’re putting a ton of work into it — they haven’t hired additional people to do this,” he said. “Instead of seeing data as passing a judgment on their intuition or what they think, they’re seeing data as a way to validate all the hard work they’re putting into it, and to refine what they’re doing.”

A sample Localytics dashboard displayed on the Mag+ website.

A sample Localytics dashboard displayed on the Mag+ website.

While analytics can provide a lot of insights for editorial staff, their use in attracting advertisers remains a challenge. The key analytics issue for the magazine industry is creating a unified understanding of what different analytics mean.

“The challenges aren’t really technical at this point. The challenges are what I call infrastructure,” Haney said. “In print, we all know what rate base is, what CPMs are going to be, what metrics we pay attention to. We don’t have the same infrastructure for monetizing digital. From an advertising point of view, does rate base matter, or is it interaction, engagement, time in app?”

Wider adoption of analytics by editorial staffs — and an industry-wide standardization of analytics — seem like valuable steps toward making digital magazine publishing less of a guessing game for everyone involved.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. She teaches media theory, writing, and editing, and does research on magazines, social media, and political communication.