From Cover Lines to Keywords: Women’s Magazines, Advertisers, and the Digital Challenges of Chasing the Audience

Curator's Note

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. 




Fascinating post Brooke - thanks so much. I'm really interested in the role of the corporations that own the search engines in this. Google often claims that it is helping businesses to connect more effectively with their audiences, but it does have a worryingly dominant place in online search. How much power do you think Google has? Certainly in the television industry companies have developed specifically selling expertise in terms of search optimisation and metadata, such as Red Bee Media in the UK.

I'd also like to know what other strategies women's magazines are using to capture the online audience. Do you see the kinds of viral campaigns or the use of social media used by TV? And how might these strategies work alongside SEO? Is there still the same more straight-forward and generic address, or is there space on these sites for the more clever language that many reader love about these magazines?

Thanks for the interesting questions, Catherine.  Google is definitely the dominant player (they make about 97% of revenue on advertising and are trying to get in the "media buying" business).  On the magazine side, publishers are training their editors/writers what specific words will draw more traffic to the websites.  One editor explained to me that her company hired a specialist to lead a training session; the "textbook" example he used was the difference between the New York Times headline "Jetliner's Icy Plunge"and the SEO-friendly "Plane Crashes in Hudson." This seems like the same sort of approach Red Bee takes. 

Much like TV, women's magazines are definitely using interactive approaches to engage consumers: virtual makeovers, "email the editor" features, contests, and polls to gauge the stories people would like to see in print. Yet, increasingly, they are finding that the audiences for online and print comprise quite different people. Since few people go directly to, for example,, the SEO "side door"is a way to draw people who want ("generic") information without the bells and whistles of print. 





 This is a fascinating development for print culture, one I'd never really considered. I'm sure many other publications are having this SEO problem, though I imagine a few have mostly ignored it (high culture publications like NYT and New Yorker I'm sure want to retain their witty/literate headlines for fear of diluting their brands).

I suppose this is why many media institutions are moving to the "social" aspect of things (Facebook pages, "likes," Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) which cut across SEO so people will read what's recommended or targeted to them. I'm sure the iPad, and the controlled Apple universe, has been a bit of savior for magazines, because it digitally replicates and enhances the old experience. 

Will the keyword problem go away if Google goes less algorithmic/literal and more social (like what Bing is marketing itself as)? Or if everyone starts reading magazines on iPads?

Thanks, Aymar—you raise some interesting and compelling points.  The SEO issue is by no means unique to magazines, and many digital execs in the news industry are trying to effectively train journalists in keyword optimization.  As you can imagine, a number of journalists aren’t thrilled with the new monetization logic. See Paul Carr's article, for example.  

Your comment about the iPad is spot on.  Across the industry, the iPad has been hailed as a knight in shining armor, and many editors believe it to be a way to reintroduce the “magazineness” of print to digital editions. From a structural perspective, control over iPad content comes under the purview of the “print” team rather than the “digital" team. Of course, this means print editors, writers, etc., may privilege those stories with interactive potential, impacting editorial coverage in both tablet AND print form.  It will be interesting to see what impact tablet editions (including the new Fire) have on both the structure AND content of the industry. 


 Really informative answer. I'm eager to see how wide and fast the iPad spreads; it's amazing that one device could transform another industry like the iPod/iTunes did for music, and maybe Kindle for books.

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