As publishers are relying more and more on social media platforms to distribute their content, they inherently compete with ever-shifting algorithms and the needs of the platform. But how much do the algorithms matter in the ultimate decision of what content to create?
At an Advertising Week panel on Wednesday titled “Next Gen for a New Gen: Content, Voices and Influencers,” Michelle Lee, editor in chief of Allure, and Phillip Picardi, digital editorial director for Teen Vogue and Allure, discussed what it means to be publishers, content creators and influencers in their own right.
Lee mentioned Allure’s September “anti-anti-aging” issue, and cover model Dame Helen Mirren as an example of providing content that readers couldn’t anticipate needing.
“We wanted to start a campaign to get people to stop using the term ‘anti-aging,’ and it wasn’t something they knew they wanted,” said Lee. “Similarly, we did a photo shoot all about pubic hair earlier this year, which made me nervous at first, but it turned out amazingly.”
While readers and viewers want choice, they don’t always know what they want to choose.
To that end, Lee played down the effect that data has on their decision-making as a publisher.
“Yes, I use data, but I use people even more so,” she said. “I ask for their opinions, especially those who wouldn’t normally look at our cover, for example. Because if we’re trying to be truly innovative, no data exists to tell you what will work. Data only measures what’s been done before.”
There was no way, she said, that Allure could have known how well the Mirren cover or pieces on controversial topics would perform until they actually produced them.
Picardi noted that one of Allure’s most successful Instagram posts came from a meme encouraging their followers not to be white supremacists; the social media team quickly followed that up with a carousel featuring their diverse range of beauty coverage, which was also largely supported online.
“There is no data to show that would work,” he said.
Just as data can’t tell the whole picture of what an audience wants and needs, Picardi and Lee recommend not choosing articles or videos strictly based on what fits within a platform’s algorithm.
“Designing for an algorithm is a flawed approach to creating content,” said Picardi. “Our brands have never been ‘for the masses,’ but we’ve been able to frequently captivate audiences all over the world. If we told our photographers or editors to create with mass scale in mind, we’d lose what makes us special.”
Algorithms, he said, tend to limit your point of view and wind up telling you what your preferences are, instead of the other way around. Publishers have become “frenemies with platforms and feeds,” he said, as they help distribute content as quickly as possible.
However, those platforms also created the same bubbles that polarized the election, according to Picardi, which causes him concern for the digital arms of the publications he works with.
“There’s actually an ethics question about algorithms,” he said. “We have to look to Silicon Valley to address that.”