Content, which might have previously found one outlet, print say, now finds itself being output through an every growing array of channels. This has, says Peter Houston, put considerable strain on editorial teams who have had to radically change the way they operate.
I’ve been known to open a presentation or two with a little bit of a fairytale…
“Once Upon a Time, not so long ago, there was an editor who served a single master, a monthly Magazine. He worked hard, but found time for research, writing and occasionally even a long lunch. Then one day the Magazine decided it didn’t want to be a Magazine any longer, it wanted to be a Brand…”
Generally, I only get 10 to 15 minutes to present, so I rarely reach the end of the story. Just as well really because I’m not quite sure that I’ve figured out if everyone lives happily ever after or not.
There is a point in these whimsical story-telling sessions: while a magazine morphing into a full-blown cross-media brand has the potential to be a fairytale opportunity for the commercial people, it can be a nightmare for the content team.
A Brand is a way more powerful commercial proposition than a Magazine. Think about Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition for a second… OK that’s enough.
The Swimsuit Edition was introduced in the winter of 1964 to spark up a moribund post-holiday ad market. It was a nice idea and made great money for a single issue. Fast forward almost 50 years and the Swimsuit Issue is no longer just an issue, it’s a money-making franchise that spans print, digital and broadcast media plus loads of merchandising. This year, it is estimated that content from the Swimsuit Issue will reach 70 million people through over 20 line extensions.
So every magazine should aspire to be a brand operating across multiple channels? Yes, but one thing the brand evangelists tend to ignore is the stone-cold fact that cross-media publishing involves way more deadlines than traditional magazine publishing.
Magazines, by definition, are periodic, most monthly, some quarterly, a few weekly. Brands are always on - you have an annual conference; magazine editions in print and digital; email newsletters weekly, sometimes daily; a website that is refreshed daily; a blog that goes out a couple of times a day; and online communities and social media feeds that never, ever stop.
The number of deadlines associated with a modern magazine is mind-numbing, but surely we just hire more people, right? Wrong. Not even Time Inc who owns the SI juggernaut, has been immune to layoffs and no one, but no one, is hiring to ease the burden on content people.
So what’s a poor put-upon editor to do?
First things first, don’t bother complaining. None of this is going away. To be fair, most journalists and editors have stopped grieving the “Good Old Days of Print”. They’ve stumbled their way through the denial, anger, bargaining and depression; and are now ready to accept that publishing has changed forever and that they need to move on.
Most won’t admit it, but some are even a little excited about getting on and making the most of this brave new cross-media world. How? Here are a few ideas. They won’t take away all the pain, but they might just keep you sane.
The most commonly used cross-media content strategy is stolen directly from the environmental movement. Like the greenest of eco-warriors, editors that need to conserve their energy, recycle.
I might have dreamed it, but I’m sure that when BBC3 launched, amidst the uproar about repeated TV programming, a top BBC executive explained to disgruntled license payers that, “it’s only a repeat if you saw it the first time”. If a national television broadcaster, with millions of viewers every day and 24-hour programming can get away with this, you can be damn sure a magazine editor can.
Recycling content isn’t as crass as it sounds. Every print circulation is limited, and I’ll let you into a little secret: not every subscriber reads every article in every issue. Putting print articles online, in newsletters and on tablets exposes your content to different audiences.
Also, in stark contrast to the Highlander movies, there is no cosmic law in publishing that says there can only be one version of an article. Maybe your stock-in-trade in print is long-form features packed with illustrations; online you can run abstracts formatted like news stories to give the essence of long-form pieces quickly. Podcasts, slideshows, videos can do the same job. Readers that want to move on to the real-deal can download a full-fat PDF and your commercial guys will love it if you make readers register for the download.
Come out from behind the curtain
In those mythical “Good-old-days”, editors sat in their offices and thought up great story ideas, then sent someone off to write them. Eventually someone came back with enough copy to fill the right number of pages, the editors fixed it up, sent it off and, as if by magic, a magazine appeared. All the time this was going on, the reader waited patiently for next month’s issue, oblivious to the process.
Not now, no one waits patiently for anything. But this audience impatience is an opportunity not a problem. The content creation process has its own narratives - beginnings, middles and endings. Engage the audience with the story as it is created.
Ask the audience what they think of your story ideas right up front. As you or your authors begin to assemble your articles, share interesting side stories in blog posts. As you uncover facts and figures through your research, share them on Twitter under a hash-tag unique to the feature.
By involving your audience through social media you have already started to engage them with your content and they will be all the more receptive to the finished article when it appears. That’s powerful audience development.
The Hansel & Gretel rule
The modern media Brand is all about multiple channels and once your content is created, it’s relatively easy to put it everywhere. But it’s important to remember the one golden rule of sharing branded content. Wherever, whenever, however you share your content, always make sure that, like Hansel and Gretel, your audience will be able to find their way home. Always link back to your brand.
There are huge opportunities to participate in the wider community and distribute your content in third-party social media streams and discussion groups, but don’t carpet bomb. People prefer enlightened self-interest and they will appreciate you being helpful, making suggestions, answering questions. All the time you’re pointing quietly at the information you offer. It will take time, but this will build traffic and it will be sustainable.
Build your own communities in the same way. Provide value and people will stay and bring in their friends and colleagues. They’ll start talking amongst themselves and you can add the power of user generated content to your cross-media Brand.
Fish where the fish are
Just because you can put your content everywhere, it doesn’t mean you should. Spend your time in the online spaces where your audience spends their time. Pinterest is the big thing at the moment, but realistically it’s probably going to be of more value to you if you edit a fashion or a furniture magazine than if you edit an engineering title.
But be careful of making unsubstantiated assumptions. Analytics are never perfect but they can give you a good idea of where your traffic is coming from and where you’ll get the best ROI. And ask your audience where they spend their time online; it’s never been easier to run a reader survey.
Don’t be precious
Yes, you’re pretty good, but you’re not the only one who can write. Partner with people, especially experts, that can add a different dimension to your content creation efforts. Don’t be precious, especially online, where you can have multiple authors contributing to your blog multiple times a day.
And while aggregation is a blunt instrument that will get you search engine ranking, curation – pointing your audience at highly relevant content elsewhere and providing context - adds real value.
There might even be an opportunity to keep your sales team happy by offering advertisers the chance to contribute whitepapers. Dyed in the wool editors wince at the thought, but sponsored sections and even advertorials can add value if they are managed carefully.
Don’t be panicked by digital
A deadline really used to be a deadline. Your magazine pages were finished by a specified time on a specified day and shipped. At that point there was nothing much else you could do. You maybe agonised over a rushed headline or worried about the proper spelling of your lead interviewee’s name, but your work was done.
Now your deadlines are rolling. You probably have more than one a day and even when you’re finished, you’re not finished. The good news is you no longer have to carry the guilt of the uncorrected typo; corrections take as long as it takes to log into your CMS.
The temptation is to provide a running commentary, updating every story as it develops or the facts change. If you are a news brand, go for it. You have the best tools in history to deliver a constants stream of updates. But there is still space for considered analysis, review, and opinion. Don’t allow yourself to be panicked into abandoning the guiding principles of your publication by the technology.
You have the opportunity to shift your magazine into a brand for a reason. The audience and the advertisers value the content you publish, they trust you to do a job for them. Try to stay close to that as you build your cross-media content strategy. If you don’t, it’s unlikely that your story will have a happy ending.