For decades, magazine editors often relied on a handful of maxims to attract readers: Young is better than old. Pretty is better than ugly. Rich is better than poor. Film stars outsell television and music stars. Anything sells better than politics, and nothing sells better than a dead celebrity.
But they have had to devise new rules when experimenting with digital video, a medium that they hope will be a savior for their struggling businesses as marketers flee print.
Mental Floss — a quirky 13-year-old magazine published nine times a year and specializing in knowledge and trivia — has become one of the industry’s biggest and unlikeliest video success stories by deploying a secret weapon — John Green, the author and YouTube star.
Green wrote for Mental Floss earlier in his career, long before he became famous for The Fault in Our Stars, the blockbuster young adult novel adapted for a feature film released in June.
Last year, he began hosting a weekly YouTube show for Mental Floss called The List Show. It offers roughly eight-minute segments crammed with information to quote at cocktail parties, like “26 Amusing Facts About Amusement Parks” and, most recently, “25 Famous People Who Were Once Interns.”
Thanks largely to Green’s star power and gift for reaching YouTube-watching millennials, Mental Floss has received more than 81 million views since posting its first video in February 2013, according to the video tracking firm Visible Measures. As of Sunday, Mental Floss’ 88 videos were each viewed an average of about 921,270 times.
“Mental Floss has established itself as a publication that really kind of gets it,” said Joshua Cohen, co-founder of the digital publication Tubefilter, which reports on the video entertainment and digital media industries.
The magazine’s video statistics dwarf those of more established brands like Wired, whose 1,640 videos produced since 2005 have attracted 91 million views with a per-video average of about 55,700. Vogue, which has posted videos since 2008, has had 21 million views and an average per video of about 17,700.
Mental Floss’ impressive YouTube numbers are something of an outlier for the magazine industry, which has hailed video as a way to counter its declining financial prospects. Making money in online video has been especially perplexing to some of the biggest magazine brands, which have poured money into producing high quality video content.
Conde Nast, which for nearly three years has tried to expand its presence in the entertainment industry, hosted a splashy upfront event in May 2013 showing off the company’s first videos. Joseph A. Ripp, the chief executive of Time Inc., has also cited video as an area in which the company would aggressively expand now that it is independent from its former parent, Time Warner Inc. Yet neither has been able to attract the video viewership numbers Mental Floss has.
Besides Mental Floss, YouTube viewers have favored magazines like Make, which offers advice videos on topics like building your own remote control. Another success has been Seventeen, which partnered with the YouTube network Awesomeness TV and restarted its YouTube channel in January.
While younger readers and viewers seem to spend more time on YouTube, a youthful audience is not the only driver of success. Interviews with YouTube video producers show that it also helps to think that what works on YouTube is not the same as what works on television.