Rethinking Online Editorial Strategy

by Dan Blank on December 29, 2008

A few weeks back, I shared a case study about how the staff of Library Journal put a strategy behind the rollout of a big feature on the web, and saw amazing results compared to the previous year. The team just took another step down that road, this time with a big November feature, which is part of their yearly Reference Supplement. So I just wanted to share some lessons from the past couple of weeks.

What they did:

  • Began strategizing about the online treatment of the article weeks before it was to launch.
  • Involved several editors, the art director and web folks in quick brainstorming meetings to get some ideas on the table and keep everyone on the same page.
  • Identified ways to break up the article into meaningful chunks. This year’s supplement had 24 web pages, compared to 9 last year.
  • Talked with members of our online and print-to-web production teams. The goal was to work web strategy into existing processes that we have so that no one is reinventing the wheel here.
  • Had the web operations team create a landing page to act as the centerpiece of the article. A big goal this time around was to ensure we leverage existing templates.
  • Began tweaking the format for individual pages – creating images to capture the readers’ attention, format the many charts in ways that are easy to read, and inserting navigational links where needed. These 24 pages have to operate as a whole.
  • Once launched, LJ promoted it in newsletters, on the homepage, and in their blogs. They created house ads for it to run in print.
  • The main article reviewed a series of online services, so they created a logo that these brands can add to their site to show off that they were picked by LJ as a great resource. So this turns into more than just an article.

What happened within the first 2 weeks:

  • A 730% increase in page views, compared to the performance of last year’s Reference Supplement.
  • It received 60% more page views in the first 2 weeks, than the previous year’s supplement did in 12 months.
  • Over 30 other websites/blogs linked to it.

Why did all this happen?

  • Beyond all the activities mentioned above, the editor of the feature actively marketed it to interested parties: she emailed her many reviewers and reference contacts. When they gave feedback via email, she asked them to leave the feedback on the web too, so that everyone could see it and she could use that list as a starting place to make improvements. Every week since publication, she has been thinking of new ways to extend the reach of the article, and identify ways to make it better.
  • Tracking web metrics. While the team is looking at the stats on how many page views the article is receiving, it goes beyond just about seeing “how we did.” This information is a tool to understand what is working, what isn’t, and where the opportunities for improvement lie. Some of these lessons will be used to tweak this article – but others will be used in the next big feature LJ puts together.
  • They are keeping track of who mentions the article, and who links to them from other websites. These are the people who are core to their audience – who have taken it upon themselves to spread LJ’s message. The editor has reached out to some of them to thank them for their efforts, and will be continuing this.
  • Other Library Journal bloggers (who are not on staff) were made aware of the article, and some of them covered it in their blogs as well. This type of communication is often assumed – that your other bloggers will be aware of the article, and they will link to it if they want. But you can’t assume that – it is so much more valuable to bring them into the fold and involve them in the process. These external contributors want nothing more than to be more deeply involved with your brand.

Next steps for this particular feature:

  • The editor is planning on doing updates to this feature, starting in early 2009. She will be expanding to new categories and adding details to existing ones. If you track how our articles perform online, you would typically have a graph that starts out high on the left, and goes steeply down from there. The whole “long tail” thing. Creating bumps along the way, via important updates, can have a dramatic affect on how relevant this is to your readers, and on its overall performance. A living breathing resource, with constant updates.
  • This feature will continue to be marketed, in both its existing form, and when the quarterly updates are made.

So sure, there are a lot of tactics in here, but to a degree, the tactics are besides the point. What is important here is the cultural shift in the way editorial is evolving their online strategy:

  • HAVING a Strategy.
    Meeting weeks ahead of time and brainstorming how this feature fits into their entire system, and how it can be tweaked again and again to make it better in terms of both content and marketing. Right now, we are mapping out features like this for their 2009 editorial calendar.

  • Measuring Performance & Leveraging Web Analytics.
    Looking at the web metrics is about one thing: your readers and better understanding their behavior and needs. This information should be used in an active manner, driving decisions. The real-time nature of web analytics offers powerful opportunities.

  • Setting Goals.
    How big can this feature be? How far can it spread beyond your own site? How many page views should your print edition get when it moves to the web? These are questions I don’t often see people asking, but are essential to realize the potential of where our brands can be online.

  • Marketing Content, Not Just Creating It.
    We can no longer assume that the content will just spread on its own – building connections and a real online community is about more than just adding a “Digg” button to an article. Part of this is the concept of partnering with your competitors, instead of treating them as the enemy. These 30 other blogs & websites that are spreading the word on this featurea are, in some ways, Library Journal’s biggest fans.

The main thing is that THIS FEATURE WASN’T JUST KICKED OUT OF THE NEST. Simply throwing print content online is not enough. The Library Journal team is doing as much work after the article was posted as they did to create it.

So let’s take this a step further…

What if Library Journal was able to see this kind of success with one article a month, or two, or three, or four? What if 730% increases in page views was common the first year out with this? What if they got 30, or 60, or 90 other websites to link to each piece of their content? What would all this mean? Among other things, it would mean:

  • That their brand is at the center of the ONLINE community in the library world.
  • That they have made that massive leap from “traditional media” to “new media” with astounding success.
  • That they are the same people they have always been, with the same mission, yet operating in new ways, in a radically different world.

But most importantly, it means that they are making librarians smile. And that is the best goal of all.

(A HUGE thanks to the folks over at Library Journal, RB Interactive and the Content Production team for their work and enthusiasm on this project.)

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