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What happened when British GQ stopped trying to ‘feed the algorithm’

Neha-Tamara Patel explains strategy shift that saw GQ stop always trying to "feed the news cycle".

By Charlotte Tobitt

British GQ has slowed things down and stopped trying to “feed the algorithm”.

GQ‘s European director of audience development, analytics and social, Neha-Tamara Patel, joined in July 2022 and told Press Gazette about a strategy shift that has seen the legacy men’s lifestyle brand move away from quick wins towards more considered content with the aim of a more engaged core audience.

She said: “It was apparent to me that we were doing a lot of what I call ‘feeding the algorithm content’: lots of short-form news, a lot of quick fashion news, all of which was still within GQ’s world but from an audience perspective wasn’t really serving us long term.

“It meant that we had a lot of churn, a lot of people coming in for that quickfire content and then leaving again without really accessing the broader spectrum of what we do as a brand.

“So we really made a conscious decision to slow things down, not necessarily feed the news cycle. We are a lifestyle magazine brand at the end of the day, not business of fashion or anything like that. So we obviously do touch on fashion news, but we try and think about where we can add to the conversation rather than it being like pure reportage. We’re not just about headlines. It’s like, how are we moving the story on and what else are we bringing to the table?”

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Patel said audience growth is “still important” to them but “the way in which we try to grow has changed”.

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Ipsos iris data shared with Press Gazette shows gq-magazine.co.uk had a UK audience reach of 888,117 in May, down 25% in two years. But its total minutes were down by a lesser 12% to 2.2 million, with recovery of 19% in the past year after a slump in May 2023.

Across last year British GQ saw a 47% year-on-year increase in engagement among British users with 71 million engaged minutes in total, according to figures shared by the publisher.

"We're not just chasing a quick fix, we're sort of taking the slower, more considered approach and rather than looking for quick wins, we're going right, we are going to grow, but rather than it happening in the next two to six weeks, it's going to happen in the next two to six months... I think we've done a really good job of laying our foundation."

She continued: "I think what was happening with the sort of churn approach of lots of quickfire content going out is that you engage a certain group of people for a day or a week, and then you have to almost re-recruit another set of people the following week and... it isn't very efficient because that content takes a lot of time and investment from our journalists to write and whilst it might have driven a spike in traffic for that one week, they have to put the same amount of time and effort into generating another spike the following week. Whereas if some of that time and effort could go into longer form content that generates traffic for us, maybe at a lesser spike, but more consistently over a longer period of time, the net gain is actually greater. And that's definitely the approach we've taken.

"Some of that does still feed obviously the Google algorithm, but we know that that audience tends to be more engaged and the platform generally kind of rewards that kind of considered approach."

Seven in ten visitors to gq-magazine.co.uk come via search, with Patel explaining that service content tends to be what people access the brand with for the first time.

Despite this Patel believes the brand should be able to weather Google's plan to more widely roll out AI Overviews in search results, which many in the industry fear will have a negative impact in clickthroughs to publisher websites.

Patel said: "Fundamentally, AI won't be able to replace what tonally a brand like GQ can offer and I think making sure that we continue to stick to that in an authentic way, I'd like to think that our readers will continue to come with us for that and they won't just be kind of sated by a few lines of AI bullets in a search.

Patel, formerly head of audience development at The Face magazine, said she asks editorial teams to think of content like a pyramid.

At the bottom of the pyramid - the chunkiest part - is "longer-term evergreen service content - things that people can access at any given point in time". At GQ this may include how to wear a suit or what does black tie dressing mean, and align well with its e-commerce strategy (which makes up a "very meaningful portion" of global revenue, Press Gazette was told last year).

The middle part is content that might have a lifetime of around three to six months, fitting into a news cycle around TV shows or films but jumping off from the major watercooler moments rather than just reporting on the latest trailer release.

At the top of the pyramid, Patel said, are "largely feature-led things, so content that we want to be writing about as a brand [but] don't naturally serve digital traffic pillars in the way that we would typically think about audience development". This essentially means articles that are not written specifically with a search or social trend in mind.

Patel credited this shift in focus with the increase in engaged minutes which she noted came despite the fact 85% of British GQ's audience comes to the brand on their phones.

"So despite knowing that we don't tend to spend as long with content when accessing via a phone, we have actually, in sort of pivoting to a slower, more considered approach, been able to engage readers and draw them in a bit more to what we do, which has been amazing."

Patel was also pleased that British GQ has overtaken Esquire, its "main competitor" in the UK. Esquire had a UK audience reach of 622,090 in May, down 51% compared to two years earlier.

"That was a huge win for us... I think the slower approach and the more considered approach is really what set us apart."

GQ has also specifically tried to broaden out its audience. Despite historically being a men's brand, Patel said, it no longer wants to feel like it's only for "a very specific type of man".

She pointed out: "We have almost 40%, if not more now of our readership that are women and we know that that's the case so why would we alienate them in our content?"

Although the male heritage is in the name (GQ stands for Gentlemen's Quarterly) Patel said the breadth of the audience can be widened with "subtle cues - so thinking about how we talk about our talent, or even style or culture".

Like many publishers, GQ is also focusing on growing its younger audiences including by experimenting with new formats on Instagram stories and reels and via Whatsapp groups.

Patel said: "I think it can be historically quite limiting, especially in big organisations where you have your main levers and you're sort of stuck with them and it hampers your progression sometimes, but having this sort of freedom to go, right, we want to attract new audiences - yes, it might mean that we lose some on the way but we're doing it in in a authentic way that feels true to the brand so okay, we accept that we might lose some people, but the aim is that we will grow in the right way with the right audiences moving forward."

A change in editorial strategy to focus on "new masculinity" has also helped, Patel said, explaining that it moved away from content saying "to be a man, you have to do these three things" to be "a bit softer around the edges and try new things, but also show up in the places where our audiences expect us to be".

British GQ has also seen a two times growth in affluent readership (defined as those earning above £70,000) between Q1 2021 and the same period in 2024, Patel said citing Ipsos iris data.

"I think how we've done that is really again, considering what luxury means in 2024. I think it's less about your really high-end tailored suits and watches - yes, that is important but it isn't just about that." She added that streetwear, sneakers and spending on health and wellness are now often markers of affluence and luxury to younger people.

All of this has an impact on revenue because the broadening of audience appeal means the brands who want to work with GQ have also "naturally evolved", Patel said.

It also connects to GQ's flagship events which are getting a wider audience than ever before. Conde Nast figures show the latest GQ Men of the Year Awards generated 65 million social video views (up 67% compared to the previous year's event) while GQ Heroes 2023 content drove more than 20 million impressions (up 66% year-on-year) and 1.4 million engagements (up 44%).

Patel said this was from a strategy of creating "moments on social media that brings our audiences in, that creates an environment that is standalone and is engaging without having to be in the room, but still feeling like you're part of it".

Ultimately, Patel said, her mission has been to bring human nature into audience strategy.

"Audience development has always really been thought of as just like strategy and stats, and I don't think that's true," she said. "It's really about storytelling. I always say put the humans back into audience development, but essentially, like, who is your reader? And what do they want? And what do they want on the different platforms you're on?"

And as well as working closely with the editorial and commercial teams, Patel also made the product team a regular collaborator.

"A lot about experiencing content isn't just the words and pictures, but it's the environment that they live in," she explained. "And so how do we make a website that also encourages time on site and keeps people there? They might have come in for one piece of content, but how can we give them something else that they might find useful? ... Is there appointment to view content?

"So we've launched a few franchises that mean that our readers know to come back for it - regular updates of pieces of content that give readers a chance to engage with us more frequently. And I think using all of the numbers to help shape what those pieces of content are has been really fundamental to our successes over the last year."

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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