AutoSpeed changes…

Posted on May 5th, 2007 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Back in November 2006 we foreshadowed some major changes to AutoSpeed.

We said that there’d be more DIY hands-on tech. There’d be more stories on the background engineering of cars and their technology. We said we’d be driving more cars – both new and used – and we’d be doing less stories on modified cars high on bling and nothing else. We said we’d be modifying a mainstream and cheap project car – an EF Falcon six cylinder – and we’d be adding instant reader voting for each story. Finally, we said we’d be re-presenting previously run stories, primarily because the vast majority of current readers had never seen them (and in return, we were extending current subscriber periods to take into account the reduced new content).

And, with one exception, we’ve done all of that. We’ve run more hands-on stuff; we’ve run heaps of background stories on car engineering; we’ve covered the Falcon modifications including brakes, extractors, exhaust, cam, engine management, air intake – and now we’re doing the suspension. All nitty gritty, real world stuff, photographed in huge detail.

And the exception? We’ve driven less cars than I wanted to.

The announcement of change was greeted with near universal acclaim by you, our readers. And those changes have been very successful at bringing new readers to AutoSpeed – compared with October last year, last month our visits were up by 16 per cent and our page views increased by a whopping 31 per cent.

Now I can remember from well before I was a magazine editor and journalist how as a reader I’d become attached to the idea of a magazine being an entity in itself, rather than (1) a business that has to be profitable to survive, and (2) not being an entity in itself but actually the product of the employed staff. So when format changes are made, I can understand why some feel deeply unhappy – even hurt – by the changes.

“Their” magazine (or website) has changed – and almost universally for them, change means the magazine has got worse.

And so we get emails like the following. Before you read it, consider that (1) the staff at AutoSpeed has infinitely more information available than a reader – any reader. We know which articles are popular and unpopular (both long and short-term); we know what resources are available to us (in money, staff and time); we know that a magazine should always stay a little ahead of its readers in content direction (rather than just satisfying the loudest calls); and of course we also know what stories are achievable.

Writes Adrian Bois:

Hi I have been an AutoSpeed member for many years. I feel as though the content is not as interesting or detailed as it was one or two years ago. Have you thought about running some tech articles that show in detail how to service or rebuild certain aspects of the car e.g. details of how to rebuild a brake caliper, or how to rebuild a head etc. I would also like to see more in depth discussions about car sound as this is an incredibly complex arena….easy to install a system but hard to make it sound good. It would also be good to have tech articles on how to integrate Ipods to factory systems, etc etc. Perhaps an article on how to build a fibreglass subwoofer enclosure etc. Product reviews may also be good e.g. HID kits or car amps and subs etc etc. Just some thoughts.

We told him:

When in the past we have run articles on maintenance (like a brake caliper rebuild) they have been unpopular in terms of the number of people reading them. Our last story on modifying a head (a topic we think would be of much greater interest to readers than just rebuilding a head), also rated quite badly. We recently considered doing a story on replacing an engine cam belt and then decided not to: it would have rated long-term in the bottom 10 or 20 per cent of our articles.

To put this into the context of the above discussion on resources, doing the cam belt story would have prevented us doing a story that we know will rate much better.

Car sound? In general, car sound stories rate poorly…. and the more detailed and/or complex the car sound story, the less it is read.

And unlike a paper magazine editor, I know that for sure. I don’t have to guess: that has been the history of readership of those stories over more than eight years! But what about product reviews?

Reluctantly, we abandoned doing these sorts of product reviews many years ago. To put it mildly, the resulting (lack of) popularity of the articles was not worth the huge headaches in getting the products to review, reviewing them in a rigorous manner, and copping the resulting legal flack.

And again, put that in the context of resources. Spending a week to do a major product review (and easily more than that when getting the products, reviewing them and then fighting the legal battles is taken into account) is crazy when those stories are not even well read.

In the context of increasing page views and the available resources, read this email from another reader, Jarich:

I had been gradually reading AutoSpeed less and less over the last year or so but since the advent of ‘new’ AutoSpeed I must say I hardly read it at all now. Sorry to say but I think it’s a shadow of its former self. I definitely dislike the re-use of old articles so much as well. Just my 2c.

It’s especially ironic that Jarich writes “Just my 2c”. He seems to forget it’s not just my two cents: it’s my bloody job… That’s rather more important to me than two cents…

Perhaps let me summarise our current approach:

  • The articles that are being re-run score very high reader ratings. (The only exceptions to that, the re-run feature cars, attract a huge number of readers from outside of AutoSpeed. Typically, they’re the best rating articles each month.) Therefore, the re-runs are achieving exactly what we wanted – satisfying the majority of current readers and bringing new readers to AutoSpeed.
  • The hands-on tech stories (eg the Falcon modification process) are being very well read, both by current AutoSpeed readers and those new to AutoSpeed.
  • The background stories on car technologies are being very well rated by AutoSpeed readers.
  • Personally surprising to me, the very ‘different’ stories (Human Powered Vehicle series, hybrids, diesels) are being very well read and rated by AutoSpeed readers, but – as expected – are attracting few new readers.

As I wrote back to Jarich:

If you don’t like AutoSpeed, with all respect there is a simple answer – stop reading it. Our readership numbers and pages viewed have never been higher. We’re hardly like to return to a previous format that resulted in less readers.

In fact think of that last line for a moment. If you’re one of those bemoaning the changes to AutoSpeed (and there won’t be many of you – unlike what you probably think, this column is quite poorly read!): think of your own job. Would your boss be happy if you wanted the business you work for to adopt previous strategies that will certainly result in less performance of the business goals? I don’t think so.

However, having said that, I must make the point that the content direction is entirely in my hands. Web Publications, the owners of AutoSpeed, have since Day 1 given me absolute freedom to pursue whatever content direction I choose. In fact, I doubt that there’s another editor of any well read car publication that has been given more freedom than I have had, and continue to have.

So let’s make it clear: I think the content direction that AutoSpeed is taking is great. I think the repeated material works well, both content-wise and ratings-wise; I think steering away from bullshit modified feature cars is a good idea (truth be known: I have been bored with them for years); and I am gratified that my personal interest topics of hybrids and human powered machines have been so well accepted by readers.

And significantly, I also think that the new and major changes that will occur this year are needed and will further improve AutoSpeed….

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