Phillip Smith

Build it (online) and they will come

<p> I had the pleasure of delivering a session on Friday at Magazines University for the Small Magazines Spotlight. “Mags U” is a four-day conference for magazine publishers from across Canada and the US held annually in Toronto. The event is organized by a number of groups, but appears to be spearheaded by Magazines Canada — a Canadian magazine industry association and the folks that brought the Genuine Canadian logo to the cover of many Canadian magazines. </p>

The session I delivered was given the title of “Build it (online) and they will come” and I was asked to explore ideas of how to use the Web to connect to readers, to increase circulation, and to generate revenue. I also wanted to provide some practical tips and look at the role of strategy and creative approaches in the work I’ve done with publications over the last few years. I was flattered to find that well over 30 people were interested in hearing what I had to say on the topic (you just never know at these things). In the room were folks from Canadian Art, Dandelion, Descant, Film Print, Front Magazine, Geist, Graphic Monthly, New Quarterly, Owl Kids, Style, Tart Magazine, Urbane, and many others that I wasn’t able to jot down.

Given the positive feedback that was received on the session, I thought I would try to document the key themes discussed before I forget (and while I’m feeling inspired). Also, I’ve attached the slides to the end of this post, if you’d like to have a look at the presentation itself.

It’s about strategy, not technology

I try to start every presentation by underscoring how important strategy is toward successful technology initiatives. Any initiative — technology or not — that doesn’t connect directly to an organization’s mission is probably not going to turn out well. But technology is sexy, so it’s easy to get lured into doing something online just because you can. And the challenge is that there’s no end to what you can do online (or how much you can spend!). So, the real opportunity for independent and small publications is to be strategic about where time, energy, and resources are invested.

To illustrate this point, I often share the story of inviting This Magazine to not implement a content management system when we first started working together. With their limited resources — and six times a year publishing schedule — I simply felt that they could invest more strategically. In their case, this was a major Web site re-design, an online store for subscriptions, donations, and merchandise sales, and decent online advertising and e-mail list management software. To this day, This still doesn’t have a content management system, but they have increased their traffic twenty-fold, have increased their e-mail list size by several thousand, and earn enough revenue online to justify further investments in Web initiatives.

Invest in results

Simply put, I feel the organizations should invest in initiatives that can deliver clear results before investing in less measurable activities. Many publications are putting money into their online presence without first asking important questions like, "Are people able to find us online?" or, "How and why are people finding us on the Web?" In the case of This Magazine (where the word “this” is dropped by most search engines), a low-cost Google Adwords campaign was able to deliver clear and measurable results in a short amount of time. Another example that was inspired by a question from Geist was, If we’re already in the top position when you search for “Geist” do we need to invest in something like paid advertising — and I would say yes! If you know your target audience well, why not let them know about your magazine when they’re searching for something just as relevant (e.g., Canadian culture)? I’ve recently heard some figures that put Google Adwords ahead of e-mail as a cost-effective donor development strategy — so, if it works for donors, I would speculate that it will work for subscribers too.

Related to all that is understanding how you’re currently doing online. If you can’t see how you’re doing, it’s pretty hard to measure improvement. So, now that Google provides top-notch, free, analytics (that’s Web statistics) software, there’s no reason for you to not have the detailed information you need to start investing in measurable results. Spending time looking at the traffic that comes to your site can help you see opportunities for:

  • Increased online advertising revenue
  • Increased online sales/subscription revenue
  • Opportunities for online donations
  • Greater conversion of visitors to subscribers (of one form or another)

Google also provides some great resources to get you started down this path with their Conversion University resources. And, if you can’t wait for an invitation to Google’s Analytics, you can usually purchase one for under $100 on eBay.

Make time for good ideas

I love sharing the story of Marry an American, the site that brought another fifteen minutes of fame to the folks at This Magazine just after the last US election. It’s a story of how a good idea with on-the-cheap and do-it-yourself execution can often be far more successful than a mediocre idea with great execution. This is important for one basic reason: if your creative initiatives and campaigns are done on the cheap, you can do more of them, and that equals more opportunities to be Internet famous for just a few milliseconds. But the untold story of that initiative is how many ideas were required — and how often they were discussed and tested on unsuspecting friends — before that specific idea (a satirical online dating site where single Canadians could pledge their chastity to save liberal Americans) was decided on.

Similarly, for the recently launched Ocean Voyager initiative, many ideas were developed over several weeks, which included both casual conversations and focused brainstorming sessions. I suspect that many publications are investing in this idea generation time for their direct mail and renewal campaigns, but online initiatives don’t seem to get the same attention. So, where possible, plan a regular lunch or put aside some time in your production meetings to discuss creative ways to use the Web. Brainstorm, document, and re-visit these ideas over time — that way, when the time comes (and when you need a great idea) you’ll have a selection of them to choose from.

Focus on developing subscribers

It’s nice to be able to say that your Web site has 100,000 unique visitors a month — but how is that helpful if those visitors can’t be converted into subscribers? And here I’m referring to both e-mail list subscribers and people who pay to receive your magazine. If we look at a ladder of engagement — where a person is moving toward becoming a supporter of your publication — then providing their e-mail address is the first step. Why is that an important first step? Because building your e-mail subscription list can mean:

  • More people at your events
  • More people re-visiting your site when new content is online
  • More people to ask to subscribe in the traditional sense
  • More people to ask for donations
  • More people for potential advertisers to speak to through your publication

Access to a person's inbox is critically important to having a relationship with them. In my experience, regular contact with an audience via e-mail is just about as important as updating your Web site regularly. That said, having the list is just the first step… it’s also important to send those subscribers something valuable. This isn’t easy (and, in fact, I struggle with it myself — rarely getting out information to my e-mail list), so set aside some time to not only do this, but to do it consistently and well. Jon Spencer mentioned This Magazine’s Film Club e-mail as one great example of how a simple idea can be done well and provide ongoing value.

Give it away or don’t: pick one

Many publishers ask me, How much information should I make available online for free? I personally feel that it doesn’t matter — all of it, or some of it, or none of it &#8212. Pick what you’re comfortable with and build a strategy around that. Then, re-visit that decision every six months or so — look around, see what your peers and other publications are doing — and decide if it is still the direction you want to go.

In an article about the infamous success of Toronto science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, Cory explains that by making his first novel (and all subsequent novels) available online for free, he was able to sell over 35,000 physical copies of the paperback and achieve more than 500,000 downloads. The article presents his view as, “free digital distribution allows authors to edge out the competition and acquire an audience.”

Similarly, for a smaller publication, putting content online for free can help people find out about your magazine. These are people who probably wouldn’t be accessible in the traditional distribution sense — people around the world, and people outside of urban centres in your own country. Also, for small publishers, it is often not so much about selling magazines as it is about finding your audience and promoting your contributors, ideas, or creativity — so there may be other reasons for providing your content at no cost.

As as example of both approaches, Taddle Creek makes all of it’s back issues available online at no cost. However, Toronto’s Spacing doesn’t and, instead, chooses to provide an incredibly diverse range of other content on their Web site. Both are making some assumptions about who is coming to their site and why, and — whether they know it or not — are making some decisions based on that.

Make it easy to “buy now”

Unfortunately, I had to fly through this section in the actual presentation, as I thought I was running out of time (unexpected benefit: lots of time for questions and answers!). So, I’ll go into a little more detail here for those who wanted to know more about this.

In short, there’s no excuse to not have a “buy now” or “subscribe now” link on your site. Gone are the days of downloading a PDF form, filling it out, and faxing it back in. There are just too many options available to not make an online purchase and payment available to your Web visitors. Let’s start with the This Magazine online store: another serendiptious accident (like the blog), this online store was put up in a matter of hours and allows the This staff to update it with new products as they become available.

It’s built on free software and utilizes a low-cost SSL certificate from Comodo to ensure that shopper’s personal information is protected. There are a number of payment gateway modules available for most free e-commerce software, including some basic ones like Paypal and Internet Secure. The store now generates thousands of dollars a year in revenue for This Magazine and, with some renewed efforts this year, is on target to increase significantly with the addition of some new products and more promotion on the This Web site.

A similar shop that my colleagues and I set-up for Amnesty in the UK handles over 10,000 orders a year — so, it’s safe to say that this kind of free software works and can scale to the needs of most organizations. On the low-cost end, Taddle Creek has used a simple PayPal online store for the last five years to offer subscriptions and back issues. This year, they’ll invest in something a little more sophisticated — but, for over five years, it has done the trick quite nicely!

In conclusion, people like to buy impulsively: so make it easy! Also, consider giving them something to buy beyond a subscription; Back issue bundles, t-shirts, merchandise, buttons. There are many online services available that can help you offer these products without event stocking them yourself, like Cafepress and Goodstorm.

Publish conversations

Why should your publication have a blog? Well… Claire from Magazines Canada recently asked me to write about this topic for their upcoming handbook — so I won’t go into too much detail here. But, the basics of why blogs work for magazines are:

  1. Better Listings on Google: Technically speaking, search engines love blogs.
  2. Blogs also challenge the traditional publishing paradigm of “we talk, you listen.” They provide a way for your readers to get to know the personalities behind your publication and opens the door to two-way conversations. For a great example of this, see the Spacing Wire.
  3. Blogs can help to build greater reader loyalty by continuing a conversation in the space between a weekly, monthly, or quarterly publishing schedule. They can also provide a space to deepen analysis on an issue or provide voice to the often unheard.

A recent example of this is the This Magazine blog. Initially an afterthought proposed by Clive Thompson (who has not posted on the blog to this day!), the This Magazine blog now receives more traffic than any other part of the site; on average, the collection of blog posts receive over 6000 unique visits a month and generates substantial commentary on everything from Canadian politics to pop culture. John Degen’s recent post on Copyright generated over 70 comments and has been pointed to as one of the most open discussions about Canadian copyright this year.

‘Nuff said, there are just too many ways to get a free blog to even list here. So, go get one!

Free software is not a free ride

Finally, if you don’t have a picture of what free software is or why it’s important for non-profits and independent publications to think about, you can do some background reading here. However, the point I always try to underscore for organizations embarking on projects with free software is that there are very real costs attached to the labour involved. Not only does it take time and experience to install, set-up, and customize free software for the needs of a publication, it also requires ongoing upgrades, maintenance, and further customizations as the publication’s needs change and evolve. So, before jumping in and setting your publication up on one of the many free and open source content management applications available, do some research — talk to other publications that you know — about the investment required, both the upfront costs and the ongoing support.

Two of the publications that I’ve worked with — Grist and New Internationalist (in development) — use a heavyweight solution for online publishing known as Bricolage. Bricolage is also used on a number of other large sites. Many of the non-profits that I work with have chosen to use the more lightweight and community-focused system known as Drupal. In the magazine world, two prominent publication — The Onion and The Progressive have recently re-launched their Web properties on Drupal. In most cases, the investments required for these types of properties are substantial, even though the software is free in both the literal sense and in more accurate ideological meaning.

So, there we go! That’s a fairly brief — but incredibly long! — summary of the presentation from Magazines University on Friday. You can download the slides from the presentation right here. And, if you were at the presentation and have any comments, feedback, or additional questions about extending a print publication to the Web — please use the form below to post your thoughts!


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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