Quality time: why magazines are so important in the attention economy

Dan Linstead , , , 28 March 2019

On an average day in the last week I spent 2 hours 50 minutes on my iPhone, and picked it up 36 times.

I know this thanks to Apple’s new Screen Time function which, like Your Time on Facebook and Google’s Digital Wellbeing tool, has been rolled out in recent months to help us all monitor our usage of digital and social media. Screen Time keeps a tally of all your phone activity, and bundles it into categories such as Entertainment, Reading and Reference, Productivity and Social Networking.

I have mixed feelings about my own digital stats. I am mildly appalled by the 36 pickups-a-day, unsurprised by the total time online, and heartened to discover that I spent three times longer on Reading & Reference and Productivity than I did on Social Networking. I can still remember articles I read on my phone last week, whereas I have only the vaguest sense of whatever I saw or did on Facebook.

Quantity vs quality

How we consume different media – and specifically what kind of attention we pay to them – is the subject of interesting recent research. Our time spent on smartphones has exploded in the last decade, but many questions remain about the roles and effectiveness of digital vs social vs ‘traditional’ printed comms. What’s the qualitiative difference between reaching an audience through paid, earned and owned channels? And what about non-digital media?

At Immediate, most of our clients retain a significant investment in print, and survey after survey shows that the majority of their members or supporters value magazines for certain communications. Why?

The recent Pay Attention! report from media marketing body Magnetic suggests some answers. The report looks at the way advertising is viewed by consumers across different channels, and suggests that the standard metrics for digital marketing success – awareness, reach, clicks, even dwell time – miss the bigger picture in the so-called attention economy. “Digital detox, banner blindness and adblocking are all symptoms of an advertising ecosystem that is overloaded. Not all reach is equal, and now is the time to consider quality attention,” the report argues.

Measuring quality of engagement is, of course, notoriously difficult to do, but the report pulls together existing and recent research to deliver some compelling conclusions. Although these focus on advertising, the principles hold true for branded content too, and the headline finding is simple. Both in print and online, magazines elicit a particular kind of high quality attention from readers.

The four kinds of attention

The Magnetic report builds on behavioural science work with Bournemouth University, which plots four kinds of attention on two axes. On the Y axis are two ways we humans learn things: Top Down (fast, automatic and intuitive absorbing of information) vs Bottom Up (slow and deliberate learning). On the X axis, there are two mental processes: Cognitive (driven by rational needs) vs Emotional (driven by feelings).

They call these four kinds of attention Studying, Soaking Up, Skimming and Scanning.

There’s not a direct link between these four types of attention and different media channels – you can scan a magazine as much as a newsfeed, and study a YouTube video as intensely as a piece of longform print journalism. But Magnetic’s research suggests that the targeted nature of certain media tends to elicit more focused attention – more Studying and Soaking up.

The report notes: “Targeted media such as magazines, newspapers and cinema generally tend to command the most focused top-down attention. Consumers are more likely to state that they are doing other things while consuming broadcast [eg TV, social, radio] media. Divided attention is inherently more competitive…

“What magazines, newspapers and cinema have in common is that they are self-selecting and in most cases paid-for; their content is often orientated to areas of special interest to the consumer. This goes some way to explaining why they are commanding a certain type of attention.”

Positive, relevant, trusted

So, the special interest nature of many magazines (including membership and supporter magazines) makes them inherently more relevant to readers than broadcast media. Whether in print or online, a moderated channel for a specific audience (e.g. a magazine or a special-interest website) will tend to garner higher-quality attention than a broadcast environment. You may be able to micro-target an audience better on social media, but that has to be balanced against the more cluttered, low-attention environment you’re operating in. Social gives you incredible reach, but converting reach to engagement is harder when attention is low.

There are two other factors which also make magazines a high-attention environment: positivity and trust.

Numerous studies have shown that consumers derive positive pleasure from reading magazines, in print and online. The focused, leisurely and self-oriented nature of reading a magazine is in contrast to the short-attention-span, dopamine-driven ‘high’ of consuming social media. Both are fun, but reading magazine content is more likely to be thought of as positive ‘me time’.

(Sidenote: digital marketing author Faris Jakob has developed a thought-provoking media planning pyramid which ranks the upsides and downsides for brands of different channels. He flags the positive wellbeing effects of magazines, newspapers and radio, and places social media in the category of media which “makes people feel bad after extended consumption”.)

The contrast between magazines and social media is even more marked on the issue of trust. It’s been a torrid couple of years for social media’s reputation, with a flood of negative headlines over data mishandling, election rigging and harmful content. That’s translated into record low scores for trust among consumers. According to an attention-grabbing 2018 Edelman Report, less than 25% of Britons trust what they see on social media, whereas 61% trust traditional media.

That greater trust makes readers more likely to act on information they glean from magazines and newspapers, making a purchase or supporting a campaign for example. So in sectors where trust is paramount – charities and membership organisations, for example – it is perhaps no surprise that print (and owned media generally) remains hugely valued and influential.

Magazines: a platform for action

At Immediate, print magazines remain a major and long-term part of our business. We’ve been supporting and promoting the Magnetic research through our consumer magazines, including Radio Times, because the value of print deserves to be better understood.

If you’re a content marketer considering the best use of budget, it’s important to understand how magazine content, both in print and online, delivers high-quality attention. As marketers, we don’t just want people to see our content, we want them to act on it – and magazine media still provides an unbeatable platform for action. So alongside the clicks and comments of social, and the traffic stats provided by SEO, we should keeping make space for the subtler but arguably more cost-effective ROI afforded by print.

And personally, well: I may have racked up another 20 hours of screen time by the end of the week, but I’ll also be making room for more leisurely, undistracted, soaking up and studying time. With magazines.


All graphics from the 2019 Pay Attention! report by Magnetic, the marketing agency for consumer magazine media in the UK. Immediate Media Co is a founding member of Magnetic.

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