5 Things About My Audience: Matt Carlstrom - Quanta Magazine

An interview with people who talk to different audience groups: who are they, what do you know about them, and what don't you know?

Hi Attention Matters readers!

We’re kicking off a new format today, as we promised in our last episode. As you know, this newsletter is all about attention: we started off by discussing the six trends that came out of our original research project last year, Scroll Stoppers, which was followed by a series of interviews called Found/Saved/Subscribed/Shared. Then took the reins for his ‘So. What Do These Numbers Mean?’ series about the history of attention metrics (scroll back through our archive!).

Today we launch 5 Things About My Audience, a series where we interview people who are trying to reach different kinds of audiences to understand how they approach audience engagement, and how that’s been changing over the years.

First off, we have Matt Carlstrom from Quanta Magazine, one of our favourite reads at Storythings.

Over to Matt.

I am Matt Carlstrom, the Senior Engagement Editor at Quanta Magazine. Quanta is a publication that is supported by the Simons Foundation, a nonprofit that works to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. I've been here three and a half years - I came from mostly an editorial and producing background, but studied advertising and audience research - things like surveys and interviews and ethnographies and those kinds of fun things.

The title Engagement Editor is one that's become more common in the last couple of years in journalism - it might have in the past been called Social Media Manager or Content Strategist; it blends all these things. On any typical day, I'm working on publishing stories, thinking about how best to present those to an audience in a specific media environment, in a way that will compel someone to come and read the story. So sometimes that's social media, sometimes that's a newsletter, sometimes it's a podcast. And then on the other side of that, after the story's published, I'm measuring the audience and doing a number of different projects that are related to analytics and insights - anything that gets our content in front of people and then tells us how we can do that better.

An image of a man with brown hair named Matt Carlstrom

1. Who is your audience? Tell us a few things you know about them. 

That's a question that I used to answer with a lot of demographics. But as I've spent a lot of time reading the stories we publish, it’s become easier to put myself in the place of our readers and think about what might be most interesting to them. So I’d broadly say that Quanta is for anybody who wants to try to understand the natural world and the mechanics that make it happen.

For many people, the entry point to science is some kind of natural curiosity. We’ve all had these kinds of conversations: “What if my blue isn't your blue? Are we alone in the universe? What’s the origin of life?” These are big questions, and they motivate people to start thinking about the mechanics of the world around them. Quanta is designed and made for those people. It’s meant to be an environment where they're going to be able to really wrestle with those questions and everything that we know about their potential answers. So we don't shy away at all from getting very technical, presenting really abstract stuff.

Quanta readers, or viewers, or listeners, might have some professional or academic relationship to math and science, but there are also many people who just find these questions very, very interesting and want to learn as much as they can. One of my favourite things is when we see comments from students at middle school or high school, very smart kids, who say something like, “I didn't completely understand all of this, but I'm so interested in learning more - I'm not a physicist or a mathematician, but now I feel like I get this.” That's a huge deal because a lot of these subjects are otherwise out of reach to people. So our audience are people who want to try, and people who are excited about the idea of spending an hour focusing on something they don't understand. And that's a very specific person. Not everybody's like that.

2. What research or tools do you have that back up your understanding of them?

We do all of the baseline web analytics and social media analytics that any publisher would do, but I really try to lean heavily on qualitative data, to pay close attention, and remind myself to put those kinds of signals in front of our staff. One of the things that I've done is create a Slack channel that is just loose qualitative comments, social media replies, emails from readers. I just provide feedback to people on our team, especially positive feedback. Those kinds of signals, like the one that I just mentioned about the students, I think help our team understand the psychographics of our audience.

I think that there's this instinct that a lot of people have, especially in web analytics at publishers and in media, that we can somehow have a formulaic knowledge of our audience that is going to be ultra-specific and completely locked tight, and refined. That's the lofty goal. But you have to be comfortable with the messiness, with not knowing, to have a best hunch and go with it. So I try to stay true to that. I think that's a pretty scientific approach to be comfortable with not knowing and not fully knowing the answer to who your audience is.

3. Have you noticed any interesting behaviour changes in your audiences over the last 2 to 3 years?

Well, one thing that has happened very recently is the growing cultural understanding of AI that was not there even a year ago. It's useful for us because now, with ChatGPT capturing people's imagination in the way that it has, a lot more people understand how a neural network works - that yes, it’s AI, but it’s also a machine that humans built, an aggregation of human content that's being presented in an efficient way that humans probably couldn't do. I think that's a big change. What it shows is that this is a topic that has really captured people's imagination, and that's an opportunity for a publisher like Quanta. Of course, we’ve covered artificial intelligence for many years, but now we have another way to make that coverage immediately familiar to audiences.

So now anytime that a story comes out and it mentions a large language model, I will make sure to use a reference to ChatGPT - it's a phrase and a word that will grab people out of their feed. Of course, we've all seen people who are spamming LinkedIn and Twitter with “Here are five ways to use ChatGPT to blah, blah, blah”. We don’t do that, of course. But if a Quanta story is broadly about a type of AI, so a large language model like ChatGPT, I would say “large language models like ChatGPT” or “the model of machine learning that ChatGPT is built on” -  I would make sure to use that language even if that language were not in the story because it's a great entry point for a layperson who might not be following every computer science story closely.

4. What’s the one thing you would really like to know about your audience that you don’t know?

I always want to know when and how we fit into someone's media diet. Of course, that's different for everybody. So it's another one of these cases where you can't answer that for the whole audience. But the more interviews, the more qualitative conversations you have with an audience, you start building an understanding of the kinds of situations that people might be in.

In 2020, I did a survey with 6,000 respondents and then had a bunch of interviews with real people who read Quanta, across all ages and backgrounds. One of those conversations was with a grad student in Italy. He specifically reads Quanta on Saturday mornings when he's eating breakfast. It's a breakfast thing for him, he will go to our Instagram account specifically to find stuff to read while he eats breakfast on Saturday. Understanding that moment for him is really informative for me, thinking about the attention that we demand of people, that we expect of our audience. It’s nice for him to do this during a quiet moment on a weekend.

So I would like to know that for everyone I meet who reads Quanta! But I also want to know - do people even like social media anymore? I wonder that all the time. I think many of us have felt an ick. So I'm just wondering what is the best use of our time as a publisher to be effective with different platforms? What are the platforms that people are going to like using the most in the future?

5. Is there a project that you’re really jealous of, that you wished you’d done at Quanta?

I'll use this question to be a fan about something, and I'm hoping we can emulate some of what I'm going to talk about at Quanta. I have been really, really impressed by a publication called Puck that started in the last year or two. They cover Hollywood, finance, tech and politics. It's a subscription model and it is not cheap, it's quite expensive. I don't subscribe yet, but they've done this great thing of creating these podcasts that go into each of their reporting verticals, and the reporters are just terrific and so knowledgeable.

They also have this newsletter that gives you a little taste of what might be in each of those podcasts. Of course, all of this is connected to the really well-written journalism that is behind the paywall. I found that confluence of the newsletter and the podcast and the paywall content to be a really smart blend of media. I've been listening to their podcast The Powers That Be for probably six months, and it's now one of my favourites, I listen to it almost every day. I’m probably going to pay for this soon, but for now, I'm just really enjoying following them that way.

I would like for us at Quanta to evolve some of our posts, some of our newsletters, to have a similar less promotional, more editorial blend of our different channels. We're working on a new newsletter and one that will be quite different from what we already have. I think it's just a very exciting space, which is hilarious because newsletters have been around forever - there's nothing new about them!

Thank you so much, Matt! We’ve loved hearing your insights about the Quanta audience.

But what about you? We’d love to know more about our audience. Tell us what you think of this format and how this newsletter fits into your media diet?

If you liked this, have a look at our other newsletters , which breaks down successful content formats, and the , a beautifully curated set of links on creativity.

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That’s it for this week. See you next week!