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How Big Publishers Are Using Social Media to Figure You Out

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South by Southwest isn't just about music or start-ups—the Interactive portion, which took place this week, featured some of the top voices in fashion media. Over the course of three major panels, editors including Eva Chen of Lucky, Elizabeth Holmes of The Wall Street Journal, Leila Brillson of Refinery29, and Naomi Nevitt of TeenVogue.com discussed the passionate love affair between digital publishing and the fashion industry. Topics ranged from from crafting the perfect Facebook status update to the platforms they use for site analytics, but the takeaway remained the same: You can't cover fashion in this day and age without understanding social.

Media companies have always needed to understand their audience, of course, but new social tools allow for incredible insights, both from products designed to analyze users and from good old-fashioned gut instinct. Here are some of the most fascinating, and sometimes surprising, things we learned about how major publishers are trying to reach you—yes, you.

Editors as Brands

The industry has largely embraced editors as vibrant characters (sometimes micro-celebrities) on social media, where they straddle the line between personal brand and publication ambassador. Eva Chen moderated a panel on the influence that print editors have in social media, revealing how the two are adjusting for each other. Elizabeth Holmes recalls that her early presence on Twitter made some of the staff at WSJ nervous, but now her personal audience feeds traffic to WSJ.com. Holmes' rule of thumb for every personal tweet is, "If this ends up on Gawker, will I care?"

Chen is the industry's shining social media star, and is working to build awareness around her staff of editors at Lucky. Readers should know the editors' personalities, style, and taste, and follow them through the magazine, the website, and individual social media accounts.

The print editors said they aren't required to do social media for work; it's a choice. "We're staring at our screens all of the time. You can either block yourself from the world, or make thousands of new friends," Chen said of her embrace of social media. As far as hiring goes, all agreed it doesn't hurt to have a large social media presence in an interview—but no one said that was an essential.

Divvying Up Social, Web, and Print Content


Photo via Into the Gloss/Facebook.

Balancing instant news with traditional magazine timelines is still tricky. Chen said that the concept of "long lead" (four months out, for magazines) and "short lead" (weekly, daily, and digital publications) is moot—"it's 'right now'-lead." Jane Larkworthy of W Magazine said that in the digital age, constraints on embargoed information can be frustrating: "Nothing can stay a secret anymore. You want to be a good girl and play by the rules, but there's always someone who will leak it and they scoop you."

Other editors are using "nothing is secret" to their advantage. Chen has scouted models on Instagram, securing them for exclusives in her magazine. Stella Bugbee of New York Magazine's The Cut says it's her staff's job to troll the deep, dark corners of the Internet and that some of their best stories have come from random Tumblr posts, tweets from nobodies, and obscure forum threads.

Each of the editors had a different take on how they approach what goes in their personal feed, what goes in their publication's feed, and what gets saved for the print edition. You're only as good as your social media editor," remarked Bugbee. Larkworthy said she thinks of W's Twitter "as a trailer" for the magazine's content, while The Cut says they aren't afraid to break news on Twitter, follow up with a blog post, and then write something for the now-bimonthly magazine. Bugbee cited their recent article on normcore as something that didn't get much traction from the print edition, but absolutely exploded online.

Editors are very aware, across the board, that "social is the new home page," as Nevitt stressed. Brillson said the same thing about Facebook, highlighting the importance of being where the reader is. Online publications no longer assume that you're visiting their dot com directly, and know that most traffic is coming through social links and search. Nevitt suggested assuming the reader has never seen your website before—and to surround them with reasons to come back to the site.

How Sites Use Your 'Digital Breadcrumbs'

Shailene Woodley. Image via Teenvogue.com.

Into The Gloss' Mick Harper said he learned from people in the e-commerce biz that retaining users is more important than acquiring new ones. He did some data digging and found that ITG readers are "major TV junkies, vastly above anything else". Another way Into The Gloss and TeenVogue.com have found out more about their reader is through commenting platform Disqus, where users have one account used on a multiple websites. By following your "path" on Disqus, sites can understand where you were before and after their page, which other sites you comment on, and where else you're spending your time online—then use that as an advantage to create content they know you're interested in.

There is no best way for any outlet to tackle online publishing, be it a simple retweet or an expansive multi-part feature. In such a crowded space, Harper predicts that sites with tech advantages will float to the top of the heap. The nature of the web is that it's always evolving, and the savvy editors and developers who look at the larger picture of what's happening on and offline will ultimately win readers (and advertising dollars). The editors that spoke at SXSW embrace the excitement of that constant change, a spirit perfectly encapsulated by Bugbee: "The Internet is wonderfully out of control and that's what I like about it best."
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