As Raymond Williams famously remarked, “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” Women’s magazine producers have long understood the commercial imperative of “seeing people as masses”; constructions such as “women of style and substance” (More), “fun, fearless, females” (Cosmopolitan), and even “real women with real bodies” (Lucky, see clip) are designed to appeal to specific audience segments—and to advertisers hoping to target consumers in these neatly packaged categories. Ostensibly, these constructions also serve a purpose for the magazines’ faithful readers: they both reflect and articulate their aspirational identities as members of communities of interest.
Conventionally, magazine editors have relied on a formulaic cover aesthetic to beckon the target audience. Cover lines—those pithy, seductive, even provocative phrases framing the chief visual—are designed to catch potential readers’ eyes. However, in era of media convergence, where magazine content spills off the printed page and across digital platforms, such traditional means of “chasing the audience” are becoming less relevant.
To draw readers to their websites, many magazine producers are deploying search engine optimization tactics (the process of using keywords in content to improve natural search results). Yet the transition from cover lines to keywords may have significant implications for the communicative aspects of women’s magazines.
For one, the market logic of “drawing traffic” (read: advertising revenues) to sites means that “search-friendly” terms likely supplant the artistically metaphorical language of magazine journalism. An online beauty editor for a top women’s title recently explained to me that she is expected to use “literal” words instead of the “flowery, punny, and clever” language associated with print. What might this mean for the future of women’s magazine writers and readers?
Further, SEO strategies undermine traditional categories of magazine audiences by focusing on quantity rather than quality. A web user who inadvertently finds herself (or himself) on a magazine website after entering a search term is unlikely to feel an emotional connection to that title. Can we imagine how casting a wide net over consumers with broad “search-friendly” keywords and stories may alienate—or even offend—the core magazine audience?
Interestingly, then, there is an inherent contradiction in “seeing people as masses” in an era of convergence: although interactive and analytic capabilities give magazine publishers more specific data on who is interacting with the content, understanding these individuals as a cohesive group becomes problematic.