Mobile navigation


Rock Sound – our social media strategy

Rock Sound magazine’s enterprising use of social media was recognised with a Media Pioneer award earlier this year. Publisher Patrick Napier describes how this small independent publisher uses Twitter et al to punch way above its weight.

By Patrick Napier

‘What a c**t’. Not everyone liked our controversial choice of ex-jailbird Ronnie Radke as Rock Sound’s latest cover star and they didn’t hold back with their comments. This is good news, however, as in this time-poor world with lots of ‘noise’ competing for attention, it’s very hard to achieve cut through and we have a new issue to sell.

Facebook’s complex EdgeRank algorithm means that engagement is the key to achieving visibility in people’s news feeds and with a post reach of over 120,000 in the first 24 hours for our cover announcement, we’d certainly been noticed. Once people had actually read the feature, the conversation developed and the tone of the comments changed; eg “I used to hate Ronnie, but after reading that feature, I have a new respect for him.”

Not all our covers divide opinion like this one did and in any case, we don’t just rely on controversy to get engagement. A great way to create a buzz around a new issue is to work with the bands, who are glad to be on our cover and open to helping promote it to their fan bases.

As well as getting them to use our cover on their social media pages, we recently started doing Google Hangouts using this amazing free technology to film our cover stars answering questions from readers fed out via a live video stream. Our newsstand sales are up over 20% so far this year despite a very difficult market and the megaphone effect of social media has definitely played a role in that.

Fishing where the fish are

Rock Sound’s core audience is 15-24, so it’s important that we interact with our young readership where they hang out. For an independently owned, single title publisher with a marketing budget that can be measured in pennies, social networks offer a great means to extend our reach.

Building our community and trying to deepen their links to us is at the heart of everything we do. Social media is both a competitor, when it comes to our audience’s time and, increasingly, for advertising revenue but also a facilitator in that it gives us a great means to increase our global audience and to compete with rival magazines from bigger publishers with correspondingly larger promotional budgets.

When Rock Sound launched in 1999, our audience was purely our magazine sales multiplied by readership per copy but we can now claim a reach of over 715,000 with social media accounting for the bulk of that. That certainly helps when negotiating commercial partnerships with advertisers. In an era of falling print sales, it’s much better to frame the conversation around a reach that continues to grow exponentially.

Social has become our biggest source of web traffic with Facebook and Twitter now bringing us considerably more web traffic than organic search. Given that we never had the budget or expertise to crack the mysteries of SEO, it’s reassuring that social media optimisation is now becoming the more important way to gain traffic with Google gradually stamping out a lot of the dark arts that were used to gain hits. Content now has to earn its right to be distributed by being worthy of sharing.

Deciding which platforms

Over the years, we’ve embraced many social media platforms. We started with Friendster in 2003, and invested countless hours and energy in building communities on MySpace, Bebo, Ning and others also now defunct. The key lesson is to appreciate that platforms will come and go, and that a page on a social network site is not permanent real estate and cannot be a substitute for your own website. Facebook continues to innovate and is still our largest traffic driver but the growth in our followers on this platform has levelled off as teenagers seek new sites where they won’t be in danger of getting ‘friended’ by their parents.

It’s certainly too early to write Facebook off but neither should we be putting all our eggs in this basket. We try and have a presence on all the sites that are right for the age group we target and that have sufficient traffic to warrant the effort. Currently we’re seeing great growth in the photo sharing site Instagram which is perfect for our audience’s demographic.

YouTube is sometimes just seen as just a video site but it’s the second biggest social media channel after Facebook and the second largest search site after Google. We’ve recently given a lot of focus to growing subscribers to the Rock Sound YouTube channel and these are up from 2,000 in July last year to over 22,000 now. We create a lot of great original video material but had previously focused on pushing people to an internal player on our website. This brought in pre-roll advertising revenue at a good yield but was a mistake as we missed out on the much bigger distribution and discoverability that YouTube offers. As Buzzfeed’s Ze Frank recently said, “If you have videos that can’t be shared … you’re basically chopping your legs off right there." Another lesson learnt!

Tailoring the message

As Amanda MacArthur wrote in her excellent article in the July/August issue of InPublishing, it’s important to use each channel according to its strengths and tailor your messages accordingly. What works for one site doesn’t work for another, something we have learnt the hard way through trial and error.

Yahoo liked the blogging site Tumblr so much they paid $1.1 billion for it. We like it too but it is only in the last month that we’ve started to crack how best to approach it. The lazy option we had previously used of just setting an RSS feed to push links to all our website posts was pointless as they were too text heavy and had no visibility as they weren’t tagged. We now lead with images, sometimes overlaying quotes or creating memes using our images and as a result our engagement has gone through the roof.

Tumblr also has an ‘Ask’ function which we have now enabled which allows followers to ask questions which we answer publicly. We get really useful feedback this way and it builds up into an archive of Frequently Asked Questions. Pinterest has seen massive growth as a platform and Rock Sound has a presence there but it has gained no traction as yet. It could well be that it’s not right for our teen audience or just (more likely) that we’re not doing it right. We’ve not given up yet so all suggestions gratefully received.

Twitter continues to grow amongst teens and with over 150k followers, it is now our single biggest platform and the one that we spend the most time and energy on. It is perfect both to discover and disseminate news plus as a means to interact directly with our readers and with the bands we write about. Bravely, even perhaps foolishly, we sometimes let these bands takeover our Twitter account. Mayhem results but also good engagement, and our fanbase is broadened as they bring in their own followers to the conversation.

Measuring your Klout

Our Klout score, a useful tool which measures social influence or the ability to create buzz, has reached 88 out of a possible 100 at the time of writing which is less than Lady Gaga (93) but bigger than our rival Kerrang (82) which is nice. It’s not perfect and it’s important to remember that it is a measurement of social rather than online influence but your Klout score is certainly a useful metric to monitor.

Tone, authenticity and speed of response are critical to social media success and hence I leave the majority of our postings to our editorial team who live the life and are better able than a middle aged guy like me to get this right. We also automate some postings using which updates each time there is a new post on our website. This is not ideal but with a small team you have to make compromises. Even though social media activity might not cost marketing cash it does cost in time, so it makes sense to streamline activity as much as possible and to continually study the metrics to evaluate what activity is and isn’t working.

Bigger companies have access to sophisticated social media monitoring tools which give great feedback. We lack the budget for these but, fortunately, the social networks themselves are increasingly making available sophisticated monitoring tools for free. The new Insights that Facebook have rolled out are amazing, permitting analysis of the optimum times and days to post. We’d suffered a drop in engagement on this platform as a result of changes to their algorithm after their stock market flotation, aimed at encouraging brands to pay to advertise to their own followers.

It’s been hard work but by working out what frequency, timing and type of posts work, we have been able to increase our engagement without having to sponsor posts to get them seen. We also recently did a live question and answer chat with our editor where our followers could ask anything and this proved very popular. The key is to test and learn, using the feedback to continually improve what you do.

It’s difficult to forecast how things will pan out in the future. The old write-read model of magazine publishing with content being consumed by a passive readership is being replaced by a much more interactive relationship and our social media strategy aims to capitalise on that. Mobile and the culture of instant gratification are likely to make images increasingly important. We’ll continue to engage with our audience wherever they congregate and our aim is to have over a million followers by this time next year.