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Come out from behind the curtain and engage your audience

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Pay attention to the man behind the curtainIn the good old days we sat in our offices and thought up great story ideas. We sent people out to write them and sooner or later the copy came back. We fixed it up, laid it out, sent it to the printer and, as if by magic, a magazine appeared. And as all this went on behind the scenes, our readers waited patiently for the waxing and waning of the moon and the delivery of the next month’s issue.

Not now. No one is waiting for anything. Your readers want it all and they want it now.

How is an editor to deal with that?

The biggest, bluntest instrument you have at your disposal is to publish online as soon as your content is ready to go. There’s an (old) school of thought that says you should put magazine articles online only after they have appeared in print to “maintain the value of the printed product”.

Newsflash: The value of your product these days is the sum of its parts, print and digital. It’s up to you to time the release of your content, but think of it this way; while your stories are embargoed by your print schedule, other publishers are bombarding your readers with fresh digital delights. The remaining few who only read print don’t care, but without regular online updates, you risk chasing the majority of your audience into the arms of your competition while they wait for the postman.

Going digital first takes the wait for the printer out of the equation, but what about the gap between having a killer story idea and your audience reading it. Print or digital, processing good content still takes time.

How about telling the story of the story? Every story we publish has its own narratives – the beginning, middle and end of the content creation process. Why not engage your audience with the process. If you have an idea for a feature, ask the audience what they think? Are they interested? What aspects of the article are they most interested in?

Questioning your audience about work in progress helps keep their attention

Questioning your audience about work in progress delivers twin benefits. It will keep you close to them and their information needs. It will also help keep their attention. By taking to social media and asking questions you have kept your readers engaged even before you have started to create any content.

As you or your writers research and report, share the interesting facts you come across with your community on Twitter or LinkedIn, publish pictures on Facebook or Pinterest, post video clips to YouTube. Write blog posts on the inevitable side stories you come across. Record your interviews and use the best bits as podcasts. Tell the tale as it builds and share the twists and turns under a hash-tag unique to the work-in-progress.

Once your content is ready, get it online, but don’t forget to sell the print version to your audience. It’s great if you can highlight any additional material you have in print, but promote your print even if the online and offline versions are exactly the same. People access content in different ways at different times and in different places. Upsell the value of the print package; it will conveniently land on your reader’s desk, it can be stored on the book shelf for when the Internet is broken; you can read during the digital darkness of takeoff and landing. Whatever works for your audience.

Your story might be in the can, but the process isn’t over. With the content out there in the wild, blog about it, tweet about it, ask the audience for feedback. Interview an expert about what they thought of the story or create a webcast to discuss the issues raised in the piece.

Finally, collect all the blogs, podcasts, videos and images alongside the final product and archive everything. Remind your audience regularly that it’s there by referencing it in related articles, blog posts and through social media.

Then start all over again on your next big idea.

The aim of all this is to remake the relationship you have with your audience by letting them see behind the curtain. By removing the dead time, letting them participate in the content creation process and watch as they content they value takes shape, they will feel closer to your brand and much less likely to turn to your competitors.

Written by Peter Houston

December 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Kindle VP says print-digital transition will be slow

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Print-digital transition for magazinesHow long have we been listening to the digital-media divas beat-up magazine publishers over their lack of progress in the print-digital transition? Well, this quote really cheered me up.

“Print is so good, that this is going to be a nice, long, slow transition.”

It’s from Russ Grandinetti, VP for Kindle content at Amazon, speaking at the Association of Magazine Media’s annual conference in San Francisco . Did you read what he said? Nice… Long… Slow. No doom, no gloom, just a nice, long, slow transition.

So what’s going on? Why has a guy who’s whole reason for being is digital content come over all warm and fuzzy about printed magazines?

Well for one thing it’s the truth. The rumours of print’s death have been greatly exaggerated – most magazine publishers would find it tough to turn the lights on in the morning without their print revenues. If only the magazine industry could stop panicking long enough to realise that.

More importantly Mr Grandinetti desperately wants magazine content on his devices and he seems to have, refreshingly, decided to ditch the Firefighter’s shrill cry of  “Jump! The platform’s on fire” for the Estate Agent’s soothing “How can we help you relocate with the least possible upset”.

None of this means that print will do anything but decline over time; without the miracle of an overnight switch from audience and advertisers, publishers are going to have to make their way in a predominantly digital world eventually. But woudn’t it be nice if the print disruptors and the digital enablers saw the sense in swapping  digital sticks for digital carrots.

Anything that helps publishers work with print and digital in parallel is a good thing. Grandinetti noted in his speech that when Kindle started out it was print books that were it’s toughest competition. Similarly, it’s print that gets in the way of  everyone reading magazine content on their Kindles or iPhones or whatever.

Much better then, to help publishers build out the complimentary advantages of digital – tracking, ecommerce, portability – and celebrate the enduring practicality of ink on paper, at least until the rumours of print’s death finally come true.

Written by Peter Houston

October 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Managing cross-media content, fairytale or nightmare?

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Managing Cross Media ContentThis article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of InPublishing magazine.

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.

Written by Peter Houston

August 15, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Once upon a time at Pub Expo

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Pub Expo 2012, Pic by @digitalhelderI opened my presentation at the Pub Expo in London last week with a little bit of a fairytale.

Once Upon a Time, not so long ago, there was an editor who served only one master… a monthly magazine. She worked hard, but found time for research, writing and occasionally even a long lunch. Then one troublesome day the magazine decided it wasn’t happy just being a magazine, it wanted to be a Brand…

I only had 15 or 20 minutes so I couldn’t really finish the story – the Earl’s Court audience will never know if everyone lived happily ever after. What I really wanted to highlight was the idea that while a full-blown multi-platform magazine brand has the potential to be a fairytale opportunity for the commercial team, the demands for content imposed by multiple platfoms can be a nightmare scenario for editorial people.

Let’s be clear, a brand is a far more powerful commercial proposition than a magazine. Think about Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition for a second. It was introduced in Winter 1964 to try 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 annual print edition, it’s a multi-platfom franchise making money in print, digital, broadcast and merchandising.

However, one thing brand evangelists tend to ignore is the stone-cold fact that brands on multiple channels have way more deadlines than magazines.

Magazines, by definition, are periodic, most monthly, some quarterly, a few weekly. Brands are happening all the time: you have  an annual conference; magazine editions in print and digital; newsletters weekly, sometimes daily; your website is refreshed daily at least; your blog goes a couple of times a day;  and your community and social media – they never, ever end.

So what’s a poor put-upon editor to do? Here are a few ideas from my presentation. They wont take away all the pain, but they might just keep you sane. Please add any other tips you have to the comments section below.

  • Recyclye – use content in more than one place and in more than one form. Slice it, dice it, chunk it up. Remind readers what is buried away in your archives.
  • Love the process – tell the story of the story. Ask your readers to contribute questions. Share your research. Podcast interviews. Don’t wait for publication day.
  • Don’t be precious – you are not the only person that can write. Work with partners. Find experts to write for you. Curate other people’s content. Don’t dismiss advertorials.
  • Be promiscious – share your content with everyone that cares. Make it easy for your audience to share your content through social media. Always link back to your website.
  • Join the dots – make sure all your staff know what you’re trying trying to achieve. Plan with them. Help them make the most of the processes and technology that you have.

My last tip… Forget long lunches. Those days are long gone.

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue delivers on digital

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SWIMSUIT 2012 COVERWay back in December 2009, I blogged about the Sports Illustrated iPad demo and the future of the magazine industry. Well it seems the future has well and truly arrived for SI.

In that demo video, SI editor Terry McDonell imagined that the swimsuit issue would come to life on the iPad; 2012’s swimsuit issue has just been released and it sounds like it might just live up to the 2009 fantasy with a packed digital portfolio.

This year’s issue will be available on the iPad with more than 150 photos and 2 hours of video alongside an iPhone app that gives users a 360 degree view of bodypainted athletes. The tablet edition of the magazine will also be available for the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Barnes & Noble Nook Color, Amazon Kindle Fire, and the Motorola Xoom.

SI’s swimsuit edition reaches more than 70 million people a year through print and digital publishing, broadcast and merchandising. This year, with ties into social media to allow readers to follow models on Twitter, see behind the scenes videos on Facebook, and vote for the first time for the magazine’s Rookie of the Year, it’s digital efforts have really come of age.

“You will see innovation on every Swimsuit platform this year,” said Terry McDonell, Editor Time Inc. Sports Group in a launch release. “The magazine tablet app showcases the highest levels of photography through scrolling-panoramic sequences, we created a new music section on, and on your iPad and iPhone the 360 degree views of bodypaint will offer an entirely new perspective on Swimsuit.”

For a magazine concept that was dreamt up in 1964 to beat the post-holiday advertising slump, SI’s  Swimsuit issue is really working the medium.

UPDATE | To see how the Swimsuit issue cover has changed since 1964, take a look at Next Issue’s historical cover collection.

New Yorker magazine loads first crowdsourced cover

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Don’t reset your router, your internet connection is fine. The New Yorker magazine cover on the left looks like that on the newsstands.

The inspiration for the ultimate print-digital integration cover came from reader Brett Culbert’s entry to the magazine’s annual Eustace Tilley competition that has readers submit their own interpretations of the publication’s original 1925 cover illustration by Rea Irvin.

Two things are interesting about this. Firstly that the competition entry actually made it onto the cover and out to the newsstands. Winning entries have been featured in the magazine before, but never on the cover. This says a lot about the growing acceptance of crowdsourcing as a legitimate way for magazine brands to develop content.

Second, just a few years ago very few people one would have had a clue what this image was about. “It’s blurred, there’s a daisy wheel, what does it all mean”. Now, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets we all know immediately that it means “Page Loading”.

While I hope this is just the beginning for magazines bringing their audiences into the creative process, I really hope that the slow-loading allusion soon becomes every bit anachronistic as Mr Tilley’s top hat and monocle.

To look at the other 2012 submissions to the Your Eustace competition go to the slideshow here.

Written by Peter Houston

February 10, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Less content, more traffic. Who knew?

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Kerry LauermanKerry Lauerman, Editor-in-Chief at, blogged a surprising statistic this week | 33 percent fewer posts on Salon brought 40 percent greater traffic, year on year. That’s right: 33 percent less content, 40 percent more traffic.

That’s not in the script. What happened?

Lauerman says that – completely against the trend for more content, faster – Salon slowed down its process.

We’ve tried to work longer on stories for greater impact, and publish fewer quick-takes that we know you can consume elsewhere. We’re actually publishing, on average, roughly one-third fewer posts on Salon than we were a year ago (from 848 to 572 in December; 943 to 602 in January).

The Salon EIC pitches this more thoughtful approach against an obsessive focus on traffic and talks about the efforts Salon made to increase output while cutting staff by cutting story length |

In its best form, we wrote short little decoders of a big  story, and tried to link generously to the original source. At its worst, we monitored Twitter and Google for trending topics, and dispatched an intern to cobble together our own summary, posted it quickly, then prayed to the Google gods that the effort would win, if only briefly, their favor.

Lauerman bemoans the pressures of the last ten years on journalists to “second-guess everything we know” and celebrates Salon’s return to it’s primary mission of “originality”.

Before you abandon digital’s drive for fresh content and return to print-era publishing schedules, a quick reality check. Even on its reduced story count Salon serves its seven million visitors around 600 pieces of fresh content each month.  There’s no question that you’re going to have to publish more frequently that you used to – it’s the only way to get the attention of your audience and Google’s algorithms. But maybe Kerry Lauerman just gave you permission to think again about the value of what you are posting as much as the volume and to re-consider quality alongside quantity.

Read Kerry Lauerman’s original blog post, “Hit Record”, here.

Written by Peter Houston

February 8, 2012 at 12:58 pm

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