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Financial Planning and Budgeting for Small and Medium Sized Magazines by Mindy Abramowitz

By Mindy Abramowitz, CPA, CGA

Of the many tasks that the staff (or volunteers) of small or medium-sized magazines must wrangle, financial management is one of the least glamourous, yet most indispensable to the success of the enterprise. Lapses in oversight and management can result in cash shortages and unnecessary panic at tax time or when grant applications are due. Fortunately, a diverse range of affordable software applications are available to assist with some of the repetitive and time-consuming aspects of bookkeeping and financial management. Many of the bookkeeping applications on the market offer an option to download bank and credit card transactions and integrate with other third-party applications you might use to track sales, staff time and expenses. These standard features automate a lot of the data entry required to complete your accounting. Spending less time recording data means you have more time to make informed decisions and plans for your organization. Here are a few other considerations to help introduce financial planning and management efficiencies.

Integrate Bookkeeping and Budgeting Functions

A budgeting tool is a common feature of most commercial bookkeeping applications and most of them allow you to budget on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis to suit whatever reporting frequency works best for your organization. The obvious advantage to building your budget directly in your bookkeeping software is that it eliminates most of the manual effort involved in preparing budget reports. Assuming your books are up-to-date, producing a report should be as simple as selecting a budget versus actual report from the application’s menu choices. From there, you can customize the report to set appropriate date ranges, the basis for comparison, and other useful criteria. Or, export the report to Excel or any other compatible spreadsheet to carry out more complex analysis.

Create Discrete Budgets

Depending on the size of your organization and the nature of activities it carries out, you might find it helpful to create budgets with various benchmarks and measurements in mind. For example, for a print magazine, a production budget that sets out the anticipated revenues and expenses for the magazine on an issue-by-issue basis might prove most meaningful. An online publication might benefit from budgeting for content acquisition and publication separately from its other revenue-generating activities.

These discrete budgets should tie to the organization’s annual budget. Think of them as nesting budgets. The figures detailed by the editorial budget should match the corresponding section of the overall financial planning document for the magazine as a whole.

The names for this type of budgeting differ from one bookkeeping application to another, but make sure your software has the ability to subdivide your budget by class, customer, project or fund. Please bear in mind this budgeting feature is usually restricted to paid applications and might entail an upgrade to a more robust plan or software edition. However, you’ll probably discover the value of the time saved and improved functionality will exceed the incremental software cost.

Define Clear Responsibilities

Who creates the budgets in your organization? Who makes financial decisions? Who records financial transactions? Who reviews reports and monitors financial performance? These roles likely overlap in organizations with a small number of staff and volunteers to do everything that needs doing, but it is still important to be aware of these tasks and whose responsibility they are.

The budget should reflect the magazine’s strategic plan for a fiscal period. For it to do its job, it is crucial that you develop and communicate a plan for its execution. People should be made aware of what budgets or parts of budgets they control and what authority they have to carry out their duties within the budget framework. For the budget to work as a roadmap, people have to follow it and evaluate whether it is doing its job.


One of the chief complaints about the financial planning and budgeting process is that budgets become obsolete too soon to be useful. Circumstances differ from what they were expected to be and the budget loses its relevance. However, it might be helpful to think of the budget in more flexible terms. Plans change, so do budgets.

Once you have established your systems for budgeting and reporting, use the information you now have at your disposal. Run budget vs actual reports regularly so that you know what is going on in your organization’s finances in time to address any areas that are not meeting the targets set for them. After you have identified problems and successes, consider how best to correct course. Does the budget need updates to better reflect the evolving realities in your business and publishing environment? Should you delay, accelerate or otherwise revise your plans to avoid running out of cash at critical times or to take advantage of positive trends? Is the magazine heading where it should and, if it is not, why not? What has to happen to align the present reality with the desired outcomes?

An effective budget and management practice should be responsive and flexible. It should help focus and streamline the financial activities of your organization by providing the means to assess whether they are accomplishing their goals and by revealing strengths and weaknesses in the current plan of action. For many organizations it is a matter of shifting the emphasis from data collection to strategy and analysis. Or from an operational perspective, it might make sense to break down plans or budgets into manageable components. Explore the tools that will permit you to dedicate less time and attention to the mechanics of tracking and reporting financial information. Automate data entry where possible to increase the availability and timeliness of your data. Delineate clear roles and protocols for evaluating the plan on an ongoing basis. Refine and recalibrate the organization’s goals on the fly instead of reviewing them from an historical vantage point.

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif


Typical Renewal Rates by Eithne McCredie

By Eithne McCredie, Founder, McCredie Circulation Management

Renewals are the most important source in circulation for three reasons: they are profitable; they account for at least three quarters of circulation revenue; and they are a reflection of your editorial content.

Having worked with numerous Canadian magazines for over 20 years, there are definite “Typical Renewal Responses” that differ by magazine type in general, and specifically by source. The highest rates tend to be B2B, especially if there are no competitors; consumer/niche have the next highest rates; followed by consumer/general interest.

Renewal Response by Magazine Category

Business to Business = 65% to 85%
Consumer/Niche = 55% to 65%
General Interest/Literary = 50% to 58%

Of course, every magazine has different editorial, reader demographics and subscriber life spans, but there’s a proven approach to renewing subscriptions that is common for all.

Assuming great editorial, a strong renewal series, consistent frequency and good customer service, here’s what a “typical” renewal by effort analysis looks like:

Fall 2018 Expires Mail Date # Mailed # Response % Response Rev @ $20/Per Expense Profit/Loss
1st Effort May 1 500 125 25% $2,500 $525 $1,975
2nd Effort Jun 2 425 64 15% $1,275 $446 $829
3rd Effort Jul 1 319 32 10% $638 $335 $303
4th Effort Aug 3 300 24 8% $480 $315 $165
5th Wrapper Sep 1 260 13 5% $260 $104 $156
6th Emailed Sep 15 240 4 1.5% $72 $36 $36
7th Effort Oct 10 210 6 3% $126 $221 -$95
Total 268 53.51% $5,351 $1,982 $3,369

Consider this: If you boost the above renewal rate by two points to 55.51%, this would bring in $290 cash, costs would remain the same, and the end result would be an 8.6% increase in revenue.

The first renewal should get the highest response and steadily decline with each subsequent effort. If the response tail is staggered there’s a problem. Perhaps the mail dates are too close together or the price/offer is not compelling, or you haven’t mailed enough efforts or each renewal has the same copy and/or creative. Other reasons could be inconsistent frequency or problems with customer service. Editorial is another factor. Did the content change (for better or worse!)?

How many efforts to mail? At least five for most magazines, but the best answer is as many efforts until they become unprofitable. It doesn’t matter what the magazine frequency is. Many quarterlies send six to eight renewals. Mailed efforts get better responses than emailed or wrappers. Perhaps because the magazine arrives in the mail and/or a renewal notice is a “response device.” Emailed efforts can boost overall response by a point or two, but it’s rare that an emailed renewal gets more than a mailed effort. Emails are less expensive, so it is worth adding one or two. Wrappers are cost effective but also tend to get fewer returned than mailed, likely because it’s included with the magazine or there’s no reply envelope. Telemarketing can be expensive if outsourced but can work for certain types of magazines and sources, especially donor renewals.

Long-term analysis by source from start date onwards provides critical information on when each source becomes profitable. Some sources make money or break even when they start their first issue: agencies, gifts, web and insert cards. Others take two or more years to recoup expenses, especially direct mail and free-standing inserts, both of which can cost up to $30 per order to obtain.

As the cost to obtain each source varies, so too does their renewal response as per the outline below. Note that the “Renewal” source is the subscribers who have been with the magazine for three or more years. They are your best and most loyal readers. You want lots of them. “Conversions” are people who are up for renewal for the second time, i.e. year two. The other sources listed, direct mail etc., are all first time renewal rates.

Circulation Sources: Total Renewal
Gifts – Donors 85%
Renewal (3+ years) 73%
White mail 70%
Insert Cards 51%
Website 42%
Conversions (2nd renewal) 52%
Direct Mail 38%
Free Standing Inserts 32%
Agency – School Plans 17%
Gift – Recipients 15%
Library/Catalogue agents* 6%

*Library/catalogue agents renew very well, but not direct-to-publisher. There’s a good reason for this: Libraries can get over 800 subscriptions, so imagine managing expirations and dealing with each magazine directly? Ordering through catalogue agents such as EBSCO makes sense. Quite often magazines will not send all mailed efforts to that source. Instead they’ll just mail a wrapper effort on the expiration issue which is very cost efficient; the postage is already paid with the magazine mailing.

Donors renewing their gifts tend to renew over 80%. Interestingly, renewing recipients (when their donor didn’t) renew quite poorly, and are usually less than 20%.

Another consideration is the subscription lifespan of your magazine. For example, a children’s magazine has a short life span, but likely has a large percentage of gift subscriptions making this type of editorial viable. However, you must replace these with new subscriptions more often than a general interest title.

Copy and Creative

Each renewal effort should be different, with a unique design and benefit-oriented copy including editorial and price savings. Each compelling offer could focus on two or three points, depending on the timing of the effort. If you’re mailing to your subscribers six times, you need to have six different reasons. The most important package element is the outer envelope, so you need to entice the reader to open it. Here’s a few outer envelope and copy pitch ideas:

  • Special early long term renewal savings
  • Last time for special 2 year offer
  • It’s time to renew
  • Hurry! Just one more issue to go
  • Last time to save before your subscription expires
  • You just received your last issue
  • Welcome back

The offer is the next most important factor in boosting response, so try to vary each effort with a mix of price savings using dollars and percentages, and mix up the one, two and three year options but only in the first few efforts. If someone hasn’t renewed by the fourth effort, then it’s best to stick to a one year only.

The letter copy for each effort should be based on the outer envelope. Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Use the word “you.”
  • Add an offer deadline and/or guarantee.
  • Include editorial benefits such as a special annual, upcoming anniversary issue, particular column (or columnist).
  • Every effort should be a “last chance” for something, i.e., for three-year savings, to renew before subscription expires, to ensure you don’t miss an issue, etc.
  • Each effort should be signed by a different person, i.e., publisher, editor, circulation director.

Other points to consider:

  • Test auto renewals by adding a box to the order form
    • [ ] Automatic Renewal: Yes, please extend my subscriptions for another year prior to expiry so I don’t miss an issue. I may cancel at any time and get a refund. My CC # is _____________________
  • The more efforts sent before the subscription expires, the higher the response.
  • Consider inserting a buck slip to promote upcoming editorial, gift subscriptions, anniversary issue, literary contests, premiums, etc.
  • Mail the renewal effort just after they receive an issue.
  • Some circulation audit bureaus report on renewal rates so see how your competitors are faring.
  • A UK magazine study tested removing the actual expire issue date on the order form and focused on number of issues to go and found that responses increased.

Have renewal rates declined over the last five years?

For some yes, but for others responses have been stable, especially for trade and niche magazines. The only way to determine the efficacy of your renewal series is to implement a strong compelling multi-effort series and to analyze responses regularly.

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif


Fact Checking 101 by Conan Tobias

By Conan Tobias, Editor-in-Chief, Taddle Creek

Introduction: The State of Fact Checking

There are two types of fact checking: the kind that happens as a step in the editorial process before a piece is released to the public, and the kind that happens post-release, when published stories or videos, social media posts or a public figure’s comments are in question. This Hotsheet focuses on checking stories before they’re published, but given how prominent “fake news” has become in recent years, it’s important for every journalist to be aware of and keep up on the battle against misinformation. For example, the New York Times, Mother Jones, and BuzzFeed are a few of the publications that recently launched “misinformation projects” to identify false online content, in some cases reaching out for help from readers. Fact checker Brooke Borel’s FiveThirtyEight article “Fact-Checking Won’t Save Us From Fake News” is an excellent primer and opinion piece on the topic.

Up until early this century, many young journalists got their start in Canadian magazines by working as a fact checker. Those jobs are nearly non-existent today given the industry’s fading fortunes in recent years. For that reason, it’s more important than ever for everyone involved in the editorial process to have an understanding of how fact checking works. Traditionally, fact checking your own writing has been frowned upon. But better to check your own work than to have it not checked at all. If you’re an editor, you probably won’t opt to or have time to thoroughly check every story that crosses your desk, but knowing what to watch for and where the most common mistakes are made might help you catch an important fact that saves you from embarrassment—or lawsuit.

What is fact checking?

A fact is anything that is known to be true: the colour of a house, the balance of a bank account, a historical date, and so on. Therefore, fact checking is the act of confirming the accuracy of a presented fact. The practice of fact checking in the print media generally is associated with North American consumer magazines, and usually said to have begun at Time, in the 1920s, under Henry Luce and Briton Hadden. (The New Yorker, under founder Harold Ross, also is frequently given credit for helping to popularize fact checking.)

Why do we fact-check?

Fact checking is both a point of pride and a way to avoid being sued. If you’re reporting real-life events, it’s your duty to ensure the information that you’re presenting to your readers is accurate. Relaying false information does a disservice to the reader who paid to read your story, and to the sources who trusted you to tell it accurately. Plus, mistakes tarnish the reputation of both writer and publication. At the same time, while getting someone’s height wrong by an inch or two probably won’t be noticed by too many people, getting more serious facts incorrect—facts that may end up libeling a source—can land a publication in court and potentially put it out of business.

Who fact checks?

Ideally fact checking is undertaken by a trained professional: someone with one or more university degrees, a few languages at their disposal, and wide-ranging world knowledge. That ideal, sadly, is not often achievable on the budget of most magazines in the 21st century. Today, checking often is undertaken (if at all) by junior staffers, interns, or freelancers, but the basics still stand: in theory, a fact checker should be a blank slate (checkers never assume to know facts, they check them). But in reality, a checker needs to be knowledgeable, worldly, curious, sharp and attentive, with an eye for detail. The more knowledge a checker has, the better they’ll be at their job.

How to fact check

Checking usually takes place once a story has been edited, but before the copy editing process begins. Before beginning the checking process, a checker should discuss their approach with the editor, in the event there are any touchy sources or other potential pitfalls involved. A checker should start by reading the story to be checked two or three times, highlighting every fact. Authors should provide checkers with all of their source material: notes, documents, interview recordings, photos and source contact information, though a checker may still end up having to do some digging on their own.

Each fact should be checked with a primary source. A primary source is the most authoritative source for a given fact: asking a source their age is consulting a primary source; checking that fact with the source’s friend is consulting a secondary source. Checking a company’s financials via its annual report is consulting a primary source; checking those same numbers via a newspaper article is consulting (at best) a secondary source.

Once checking is complete, any potential changes should be discussed with the writer and editor. (If necessary, a legal team may be brought in to vet the piece for libel or other issues.) Just like every story is different, every checking process is different. There is no definitive norm.

What to check

Ideally, check everything. But if you’re short on time and resources, be especially sure to check proper names, numbers and consistency of story. Quotations from a source should be checked for the facts they contain, but never read quotes back to a source directly—they may regret something they said and try to take it back. Remember that letters to the editor, opinion pieces, reviews and fiction contain checkable facts too.

Finally, don’t stop at the story itself: check headlines, decks, bylines, author bios and captions. Even photos and illustrations need to be checked to ensure that they accurately portray their story.


This Hotsheet scratches the surface of how to fact check. For a more complete view, have a look at the following sources:
The Fact Checker’s Bible, by Sarah Harrison Smith (Anchor)
The Chicago Guide to Fact Checking, by Brooke Borel (University of Chicago Press)

Resources on Verifying Other Media
Cutting Through the Noise: Digital Accuracy” by Craig Silverman (Magazines Canada Hotsheet)
The Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network.

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif


Getting Started on the Right Foot with Advertisers by Trevor Battye

By Trevor Battye, Partner, Clevers Media

Getting started with advertisers is often more about asking the right questions than it is about presenting the information. Once you have the answers from advertisers you will be better able to present the information about your publication that is most relevant to those advertisers.

New Relationships

Leads from advertising can come from anywhere. You can see an ad on a billboard or in a competitor publication. You can see something on TV, or see a business that might be a good fit as you walk down the street.

Member-Based Organizations

An important question to ask is what are the major member-based associations in your magazine vertical? Could you offer them a volume based advertising discount?

Some examples:

  • The Directors Guild of Canada
  • The Association of BC Book Publishers
  • Calgary Chamber of Commerce
  • Real Estate Board of Vancouver
  • Alliance for Arts and Culture
  • Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals

Could members pool resources and buy an ad together? Here’s an example. Note the cost of this full page ad is $525 divided by 12 publishers is $43.75 per title.

Sources for New Leads / Relationships

Your Board: Many publications have some form of board of directors. Whether an editorial board or a formal non-profit board, boards can often provide a great resource for new leads/introductions to new relationships. Remember these are people who have already expressed an interest in your organization.

Competitor Publications: You should keep a regular eye on competitors, both those who are in the same vertical as you, as well as those publications that provide similar editorial coverage. Don’t be worried if a competitor publication has a larger circulation, as there may be reasons an advertiser wants to advertise in both!

Suppliers to your organization: Many publications have never asked their suppliers if they would consider purchasing advertising or sponsoring the publication. If you can prove to your supplier that advertising in your publication could bring them additional business they are open to listening. This works particularly well with suppliers you have long-standing relationships with or if your publication is celebrating an anniversary. Once you’ve identified the organization you want to pitch, the next important step is to identify who you should be pitching.

Identifying the Right Contact in a Potential Advertiser

Start at the top of the organization you want to advertise, like the CEO or VP/Director of Marketing. There is a unique opportunity when approaching a new organization to start as high up in the company as possible. More often than not, this leads to the CEO or Director of Marketing passing word down that they would like to move forward to those who are in charge of execution.

Gauge familiarity with your magazine brand—has the client/lead seen a copy of the publication and your e-newsletter? Advertising sales is about selling a physical product. People need to see the magazine before they buy it. This is as important in print as it is on the web.

Communication Schedule and Preferences

When starting a new relationship you want to clearly establish what the advertiser’s preferred communication style is. Do they prefer email, phone, text, Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn Message? What is the preferred style of the industry that advertiser operates in? For example, construction does a significant amount of communication, whereas other industries do not.

Equally if not more so, it’s important to create a schedule with advertisers. While this may begin with an email or mailed media kit, you need to determine the best way to follow up.

Once you identify the advertisers that you are ready to pitch, you need a good pitch letter to get them interested in your publication. This, combined with making sure they see a copy of the publication, is important to get any new relationship off on the right foot.

Elements of a good pitch letter—Here’s an example

  1. Specifics related to that particular advertiser and vertical
  2. Other advertisers from the same vertical who advertise with the publication
  3. Relevant reader survey data / editorial info
  4. A schedule of when you will follow up

What are the key marketing periods for the advertiser?

For some that’s fairly obvious as many businesses have a key season (i.e. Fall Books) or Holiday Giving. But for others it’s less so. Have you ever celebrated Fluevog Day?

What are their existing key marketing tools? Enews? Product catalogue? Samples? Social media posts? How can you deliver these to your audience of readers?

Who is their product for? Your publication probably has a fairly wide audience or perhaps a number of segments. Which one is of the most benefit to the advertiser, despite being focused on your magazine’s editorial themes?

What value can the advertiser provide to your reader? Sometimes it’s sampling a new product or new content. What can your publication do for the advertiser that they can’t do for themselves? Consider that as a publication brand your strength is bringing people together around your editorial environment and you can deliver that in ways that a brand cannot, as you deliver the audience and the editorial arena for the advertiser to join. Consider if you are already doing or could provide the following: Events? Podcasts? Sponsored social media?

NOTE: All of the above require significant resources including time to develop, so before building any of the above you should check with your existing and potential advertisers to gauge their interest before launching.

How to Handle Common Objections

Ask why not?
This will often give you additional information about what might be a better fit for the advertiser. Here’s a sample of how to ask why the advertiser is not advertising by email. Depending on the relationship, sometimes the best way to ask why an advertiser is passing is to do this by phone as quite often people don’t want to put the reason in writing.

“No budget”
When do they plan their budget? How much do they typically spend on ads? Where do they spend most of their budget?

“Not the right time”
What are their key marketing times? What is the most important time of year for their brand / organization?

“Not sure it’s going to be a fit for your magazine’s audience”
This is a common objection particularly when starting a new relationship. Consider a contest and use the results to prove your audience’s interest in the product/service/advertiser brand.

How to Improve Existing Relationships

Advertiser Surveys: Create an opportunity to listen to advertisers. Too often in the media business we find ourselves pitching. The key to a relationship is to listen, and the best way to listen is to ask specific questions about how the client is interacting with your advertising. Note these questions should be questions that you are able to act on. Here’s a sample of an advertiser survey. Note that unlike a reader survey you don’t need to offer a prize, as you are trying to make the advertising experience better for advertisers.

Keys to Success

  1. Ask about things you can deliver on.
  2. Follow up—Likely two emails and a phone call to get an answer.
  3. You can’t please everybody! Look for commonalities.
  4. Share the results with your advertisers! They spoke, you listened: now here’s what is coming!

If you have any further questions, feel free to contact Trevor Battye at or 647.376.8090 (Toronto) and 778.773.9397 (Vancouver).

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif


Diversifying your Contributors in Seven Steps by Chelene Knight

By Chelene Knight, Managing Editor/Executive Director of Room magazine, and Festival Director of the Growing Room Literary Festival

Photograph of Chelene Knight
Chelene Knight

When thinking about diversifying your contributors, you must first think about what this means to you and your team. What does diversifying really mean? It should go above and beyond race and gender, and consider all the various intersections and the ways in which they meld into one another. Wherever possible have an in-person meeting with your team and make sure that “diversifying our contributors” is the one and only topic. You should recognize that there is no end result, but instead a system of established accountability practices put in place to consistently reevaluate the magazine’s efforts while still adhering to your mandate, mission, values, and long-term goals. Ask yourself questions about what diversifying really means. These questions can include: Who are we not reaching, and why? How can we let folks know that we want their voices included? How do we include as many voices as possible, but in a respectful way?

Most often, folks submit to magazines, purchase issues and attend events by word of mouth, or because they have a longstanding history/relationship with the magazine and its values. Find a magazine that mirrors and reflects what you hope to be doing and reach out to them and ask about their procedures. Make friends and have conversations. We shouldn’t ever be operating in a silo.

Step One: Define what your inclusion goals are

Start by embracing the Three T’s: Transparency, Trust, Truth—your bridge to success.

  • Truth
    Being open and honest about your magazine’s intentions, as well as being forthcoming about mistakes you’ve made along the way, will lead into building trust with your current readers. Be honest about who is missing from your pages. Share (perhaps in a weekly newsletter) that you WANT To include these folks, but need a little help.
  • Trust
    Trust is earned when a magazine delivers on their promises and trust is solidified by creating quick and concise solutions if things do not go as planned. Did you miss mailing an issue? Did you spell a contributor’s name wrong? Do you reply to all emails? It’s all in the details. Replying to emails sent from the very folks you hope to reach out to is imperative. Listen to their rants and raves and in your reply, ask them what their ideas are. Take their ideas and present them to your team.
  • Transparency
    No one should expect everything to happen overnight. And because of this, it’s super important to make sure you communicate your journey with your writers, subscribers, supporters and followers. Are you working on creating an accessible space, but hitting a lot of road blocks along the way? Let people know! The journey is just as important as the destination.

Step Two: Identify the barriers and then remove them

Barriers are obstacles that stand in the way of not only certain people submitting to your magazine, but they can also stand in the way of even accessing it. The only real way to find out what these barriers are is to ask. Send out reader surveys, weekly newsletters (and in these newsletters ask your current subscribers to forward it to someone who may not know your magazine exists).

Step Three: Take a look in the mirror: Does your staff and governing body reflect who you are trying to reach? If not, rectify this

The majority of folks submitting to magazines will look to that masthead to check the diversity of who is on the editorial and governing boards:

  • people of colour
  • folks with varying education levels
  • women, non-binary, trans folks
  • Indigenous folks
  • Folks with various abilities and disabilities

The list goes on and on. What’s that old saying? Be the change you hope to make. Reflect it every day. Although the above is not an exhaustive list, I know that as a writer and as an editor that these are things that are very important to me.

Step Four: Community engagement

Hosting your own events is a fantastic way to attract attention and build a larger audience for your magazine, but attending other events aside from your own, meeting people, networking and supporting other local organizations is a fantastic way to build and strengthen community.

Step Five: Relationship building

It’s one thing to establish strong relationships with the community, but also consider doing the same with organizations outside of publishing. Speak with local shop owners, cafes, restaurants and the like to establish the “three T’s” and check in to see if your goals align with theirs. Do they want to increase food sales? Ask about hosting an event there, or collaborate in another way (discounts can go both ways).

Step Six: Action items you can implement now

  • Transparency via weekly newsletters.
  • Form an equity and inclusion committee and make that committee the core of every decision your organization makes.
  • Perform annual language audits on your website, and other materials to make sure your language is inclusive.

Step Seven: Accountability and constant re-evaluation

Again, diversifying isn’t a matter of checking boxes. The work you do to make your organization as inclusive as possible, inside and out, should become daily practice, a part of your mandate. Check in with yourselves frequently to make sure you are on the right track and to look for ways to continually do better. A great way to make sure that this never falls off your to-do list is to write it into your daily operations. Ask yourself if every decision you make is as inclusive as possible. If the answer is no, go back and try again. This is work. Magazines Canada

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Feature photo: The Jopwell Collection

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif


5 Steps to Launching a Podcast by Matthew Blackett

By Matthew Blackett, Publisher, Spacing

Podcasts have become a vital component in engaging with your magazine’s readers. Adding a podcast to your publication’s repertoire is no easy task; it should be approached in the same way that your staff would go through when developing a commemorative issue or special insert. Below are five steps for you to consider before uploading your first episode.


It’s important to identify all of the reasons why your magazine needs to launch a podcast. Here are some of the most common goals.

  • Increase awareness of the magazine: A podcast is the classic “brand extension” and opens you up to attracting new readers who may only have been exposed to your podcast;
  • Provides new avenue for you to share editorial and complement magazine content: As every writer has told one of your editors, “there was a lot of content that didn’t make it into the article.” Podcasts offer you the opportunity to expand on quotes and ideas presented in your articles and features.
  • Share info about your magazine and other business needs: Podcasts offer the opportunity to promote your own events, market special offers on magazine subscriptions, etc.
  • Monetize the podcast: Depending on the size of your audience, you can sell sponsorship or advertising on your podcast.*

* A cautionary note about advertising and sponsorship—very few, if any, magazines that launch a podcast will make significant revenue from ads or sponsorships. Unless you’re attracting tens of thousands of listeners to a podcast, the numbers just don’t add up. One solution is to add the sponsorship of a podcast as part of an ad sales package (i.e., “for $500 more an issue you can be the sole advertiser on our podcast” or “if you buy the outside back cover for the year, we’ll make you the only sponsor of our podcast for the year, too”).

Another solution to the ad/sponsor challenge is to make the podcast a value-added benefit for subscribing to the magazine. That means making the podcast exclusive only to your subscribers. Reducing the number of people you can reach by essentially putting the podcast behind a paywall may not make your ad sales reps happy, but it might be good news for your circulation department who are looking for any way to attract new readers and retain existing subscribers.


Your magazine has a unique voice; it might be serious and informed or it could be accessible and light. Whatever tone you try to project within the pages of your magazine should be reflected in your podcast.

Identifying the voice will allow you to envision the format and the type of guests you want to invite onto the show. By using a similar tone/voice from your magazine, your magazine readers will feel more at ease with your new product.


The format of your podcast will help give it a shape and flow. Much like your magazine, the podcast should be split into digestible sections. It’s absolutely fine to even mimic the format of your magazine: start with a few short bits (front of book), a main topic or theme (cover section), and finish it off with some short and light content (back of mag).

A successful format for a podcast is to theme the episode. From a bird’s eye view, this allows the podcast to feel like all of its components are related and intertwined. It allows your marketing and circulation teams to target groups of listeners and gives you the potential to attract new listeners that are interested in the theme.


Depending on your magazine’s frequency, you should work the podcast producer and the podcast’s production timeline into your production schedule. Below is a rough template for how/when to include your podcast team into the magazine’s workflow.

  • Editorial team discusses next issue articles, themes, etc.

Podcast producer attends meeting and participates in editorial decisions;
Potential to suggest which articles are podcast-friendly

  • Articles submitted, edited

Podcast producer reviews final articles, picks best fit for podcast;
Podcast producer approaches writer for contact info of experts quoted

  • Articles go into layout

Podcast goes into production: interviews recorded

  • Magazine goes to printer

Podcast enters post-production stage

  • Magazine distributed to store

Podcast uploaded, post made to website, promotion begins

  • Release party/related event

Podcast promoted at event


Your podcast should come with a lot of fanfare. You need to take every opportunity to promote it: in the magazine with ads, easy-to-find links and house ads on your website, posts in your social media channels, in your monthly newsletter, a mention from our editor in their opening column—draw attention to it with prizes and cross-promotions with advertisers. Include a blow-out card to subscribers. Take every opportunity to promote this free product you’re offering to readers. Magazines Canada

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage  Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Creates / Ontario Créatif


Direct Mail Success by Alysa Procida

By Alysa Procida, Publisher, Inuit Art Quarterly and Executive Director, Inuit Art Foundation

Though digital marketing and outreach continue to attract publishers’ attention, direct marketing can still be a powerful marketing tool, especially for small, niche publishers. In 2017, the Inuit Art Quarterly undertook a highly targeted direct-mail campaign that wildly exceeded our expectations: the magazine’s subscriptions increased by 27% overall, thanks to some lists’ response rates as high as 26%. By comparison, past efforts had yielded a 2–3% maximum return. Here’s what we did differently:

1. We got expert assistance.

If at all possible, invest in quality guidance and support. Thanks to funding from the Ontario Arts Council and the Department of Canadian Heritage, we engaged Abacus Circulation to oversee the campaign and hired experienced contractors to help write, design and distribute our packages. This proved invaluable when creating an outreach strategy. Prior to this campaign, we reached out to lapsed subscribers with a no-pressure, no-offer update letter about our recent activities and initiatives. In doing so, we welcomed past readers back, with a look at what they had missed.

2. We got to know our audience.

Before conceptualizing the direct-mail campaign, we undertook an extensive reader survey to better understand our audience. In addition to basic demographic information, we prioritized asking about our readers’ magazine-reading habits, travel, interest in museums and other cultural activities and art collecting. Having a well-rounded picture of our readers helped to more precisely hone the messaging of campaign and target new potential readers.

3. We knew our niche and our value in it.

The Inuit Art Quarterly is the only magazine dedicated to Inuit and circumpolar Indigenous art worldwide. For thirty years, the IAQ has been the only consistent way for audiences to connect with Inuit artists. It is overseen by the Inuit Art Foundation’s majority-Inuit board of directors. The IAQ consequently has developed the reputation of being a community-driven, authentic and trusted source of exclusive information on Inuit art. Our direct-mail campaign messaging highlighted these reader perceptions.

However, we also know that Inuit art is much narrower in popular imagination than it is in reality. To pique potential reader interest, we knew we had to combat this idea so made sure to highlight the diversity of work covered in the magazine. Our tagline “Soapstone is just the start” provided an enticing and welcoming introduction to the broad scope of our content.

4. We targeted lists precisely.

Undoubtedly, the most important element of our campaign’s success was specifically targeting lists that best matched qualities we knew about our existing readers or had an affinity with our mandate. These came from other magazines, but also partnerships with museums and private art galleries with direct relationships with Indigenous art collectors. We also made an effort to target international audiences, which was a successful risk: our international lists had an average return rate of 6%, though several ranged between 23–26%.

5. We didn’t discount our history.

Although we undertake regular solicitation regarding renewals, our biggest jump came from historically lapsed subscribers. By reaching back as far as 2008, we were able to engage a number of past subscribers. This taught us not to assume why a subscriber might have left and not to discount their original interest. If you have a niche, chances are your readers are still interested even without an active subscription. Reaching out again is also an opportunity to learn what can be improved to increase retention rates and create deeper reader engagement.

6. We tracked results and learned everything we could.

To evaluate the success of the campaign, we tracked the results precisely in order to learn as much as possible about our new (or renewed) subscribers, and what elements of the campaign were especially successful. Two-year subscriptions outperformed one-year subscriptions significantly, which was our hope. That offer has come to be a benchmark for our other marketing efforts. Finally, working with an experienced team helped to build capacity and knowledge amongst our own staff. We have developed a more robust sense of our audience and their high level of enthusiasm, which we have in turn parlayed into strategic engagement, such as gift offers and donation solicitations, all tweaked to highlight and support the messaging we crafted with our direct marketing materials resulting in a significant jump in support that we look forward to stewarding for years to come. Magazines Canada

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC)


How to Create a Digital Strategy (That Actually Works for You) by David Topping

Photograph of David ToppingBy David Topping, Senior Manager, Product, St. Joseph Media

Too many print publications start where they should end when it comes to their digital strategy. The most important question to ask first isn’t how many articles a day to write or how to go about promoting them on social media. And it’s not whether you should launch email newsletters or apps or podcasts or Snapchat accounts. It’s why: why should you be doing any of that in the first place, and to what end? Here’s how to answer that question, and figure out everything that follows it.

1. Figure out what you care about

You probably already know what one thing matters most to your publication, it’s what has long informed your editorial strategy and it’s how you make money. Here’s what publications most often aim at, and why:

The more people, the merrier, whoever they are and whatever they do once you’ve gotten their attention. Big advertisers have long loved scale, which is a big part of why many publications focus on this target above all others.

Whereas publications devoted to scale try to get an audience’s attention, those devoted to engagement also focus on keeping it. More sophisticated online advertisers care about this, too: some use engagement as a stand-in for credibility when it comes to deciding who to create sponsored content with and a few even pay based on how much time their ads are seen for.

Your audience loves you, or needs you, or both. Either way, they’re loyal. If more of a publication’s revenue comes directly from their audience than their advertisers, it’s likely devotion that’s fuelling it.

2. Figure out what to measure

One of the best things about digital media is just how easy it is to collect data on how people use it. One of the worst things about digital media is just how easy it is to drown in that data. But when you know what you care about, it’s a lot easier to determine what to measure and what to ignore. You can’t care about everything, so coming up with a measurable metric that’s a good proxy for what you do care about is critical.

Here are just a few of your many options for what to focus on based on the aims outlined above. Pick a few, or just one, or find something else that works for you—but the smaller you are the fewer metrics you should choose. To measure them on websites, use an analytics tool like Google Analytics; to measure them on social networks and elsewhere, like newsletters and tablet editions, you’re usually best off relying on that service’s built-in tools.

If you care about scale, you can measure your success by means of website page views, a crude measurement that is increasingly falling out of fashion since it’s so easy to manipulate, but one that many publications are stuck with for now, since so many digital advertisers continue to use it for their campaigns. Sessions or users are better, more honest measurements of scale: sessions is the total number of visits to a website or other digital product during a given period, and users are the number of unique visitors. If you have newsletters, tablet editions or podcasts, you can measure their number of subscribers, and if you have an app, you can measure app installations. And if you’re on social media, you can measure by the number of followers you have on a given network, or by your reach there.

If you care about engagement, you care about users taking some sort of action with your content, which can include but isn’t limited to spending time with it.

When it comes to measuring how and to what extent people take action, you could focus on social media engagement on the platforms that suit your content best—the number of people who don’t just glance at a Facebook post or tweet but do something with it, such as share it, retweet it, or Like it. (What social networks suit your content best? The more visual it is, the more important it is you’re on Instagram; the more newsy it is, the more important it is that you’re on Twitter; the more people it’s intended for, the more important it is that you’re on Facebook.) Many website tools let you see the bounce rate of a particular piece of content, which is what percentage of visitors left without looking at any other content on your site, or page depth, which measures how many pieces of content users go through per visit. For newsletters, open rates will tell you how many people opened a given campaign, and, if the newsletter links out to other content, click rate will tell you what percentage of people who either received or opened the newsletter clicked on any one of those links. And for apps, the number of active users, sometimes called active devices, will tell you how many people are actually using the app after installing it.

For time, average session duration or average time on page or screen will give you a sense of how long the average user stays with you per website or tablet-edition visit (that’s average session duration) or per any given item of content (that’s average time on page or screen). More fully featured but expensive analytics tools like Chartbeat can provide the cumulative amount of time all readers spent with any one piece of content, though there’s a crude way to do this with data most services offer for free: take the average time spent per page and multiply it by the number of page views it has.

If you care about devotion, you could care about returning website visitors: those whose latest visit to your website wasn’t their first. The more returning visitors you have and content you publish, the more you can go even deeper, by focusing on seeing how many users returned, say, ten times over the course of a given month. If you encourage or force people to log in to view content on your website, measuring the number of active site members can tell you just how devoted those who signed up for an account are.

3. Figure out what to do

Now that you’ve decided what numbers you’ll be paying attention to, you can start putting in work you think will move those numbers—and stop putting in work you think won’t. You shouldn’t be doing anything digitally that you don’t believe is likely to affect your goals, and you shouldn’t be doing anything digitally that you can’t measure to determine to what extent it has.

What should you do, then? Here, again, the answer very much depends on what you care about and how you’re measuring it. Sometimes you will need to change the form of what you produce (its frequency, its medium, its shape and/or its distribution), and sometimes you will need to change its content (its focus, its intended audience and/or its voice); often, you will need to do both. You should start by experimenting with what you think is likeliest to work and what is easiest to do, look at the results, do more of what’s working and less of what isn’t, and then repeat. Over time, you’ll learn more, more quickly and save more and more time producing things that hit your goals faster and faster.

Here are some examples of the kinds of things you could experiment with:

If you care about scale and you’re measuring sessions or users, you could focus your energy on publishing more content than you currently do, or publishing content of interest to a greater audience. You could also make your work more legible to Google by giving pieces of content more straightforward titles, URLs and file names. If you’re measuring page views, the same strategy would work, but you can also cheat by publishing more multi-page articles and more slideshows or galleries (though you might bother your users, who’ll have every right to be annoyed). If you’re measuring newsletter or tablet edition subscribers and you have a website, you can create more places on the site where people can sign up for them, or point more prominently to the ones they can. It’s easier said than done to change the focus of an existing newsletter or tablet edition so that it’s of interest to a greater audience, or launching a new one that is, but nothing will affect subscriber numbers more. If you’re measuring social media followers, you can try publishing more content to the network(s) of your choice, and use what combination of messaging, creative and links your followers there respond to as a guide for what to do more of yourself. And if you have any sort of budget, you can run ads inexpensively on Facebook that can move pretty much any metric for scale, at least temporarily (including but not limited to app installations, Facebook or Instagram followers or reach, page views and newsletter subscribers).

If you care about engagement, and you’re measuring average time on page, you could experiment with publishing longer, more detailed content to see if it holds readers’ attentions. If it’s bounce rate that you care about, you can link to more of your own content in more noticeable ways from within more of the content you publish. If you’re measuring your newsletter open rate, most email services will let you experiment with serving different subject lines for the same campaigns to your subscribers and tell you which was more successful, a feature called A/B testing or multivariate testing. If you’re measuring your social media engagement, you can experiment with what time of day you post there, as well as how frequently you post, and, on networks that are conducive to it like Twitter (very!) and Facebook (somewhat!), how often to repost the same or similar content.

Finally, if you care about devotion and you’re measuring returning website visitors, try creating more recurring website features that keep your audience coming back. Or you could launch an email newsletter that drives people to your website (or, if you already have one, increase the frequency of your existing one, or change how you frame the content in it to get a bigger response out of your subscribers). With devotion as a goal, as is the case with scale and engagement, what you publish is often as much or more important as how you publish it, so don’t be afraid to adapt your editorial strategy as you learn more about what people respond to.

What strategy will work for you? You can’t know that yet, and you shouldn’t expect to be able to: publications and their audiences vary widely, and so, necessarily, does what succeeds for them. Now, though, you should be in a much better position to discover what works best for your publication, and your audience. All that’s left is to start. Magazines Canada

David Topping is the Senior Manager of Product at St. Joseph Media, which owns Toronto Life and FASHION, among other titles, where he leads digital product development and management for all of the company’s editorial brands, as well as the clients of its custom content wing, Strategic Content Labs. In his career in Canadian media, largely in digital leadership roles, he’s launched successful products, built fledgling outlets into powerhouses, and turned decades-old legacy brands towards their digital futures. He’s worked at everything from flush start-ups to poor but punchy up-and-comers, and his work has been regularly recognized as the best of its kind in the country, including at the National Magazine Awards, where he’s won five.

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC)


Recommended Reading: Become a Magazine Editor by Barbara Johnston

By Barbara Johnston, Editor & Partner, West Coast Editorial Associates

The magazine business, like all forms of publishing, has undergone seismic shifts in the last decade with the flight of print advertising to online and the growth of tablet and mobile reading habits, requiring existing magazines to reinvent themselves and providing new opportunities for innovators. Something that doesn’t change is the need to focus on readers’ interests and needs, and magazine editors who serve readers well will always be in demand. Here are some books, blogs and other resources that are useful for both new and experienced magazine editors.

Mastering the craft with dictionaries

Some cherish dictionaries, but they’re not everyone’s passion; if you’re going to thrive in magazines, you should know your way around the following three:

  • Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Canadian spelling patterns). Available online via subscription. The ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary and Gage Canadian Dictionary are also used as Canadian sources.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (American spelling patterns). Free online.
  • Oxford English Dictionary (British spelling patterns). Free online.

Mastering the craft with usage, grammar and other guides

Dozens of print and online works are available—what’s best for you will depend on the publication you’re working for. Here is a partial list to get you started; all are recent or recently updated:

Mastering the craft with style guides

There are many specialized and a few general style guides, but in Canadian general interest magazines you are most likely to follow the Canadian Press Stylebook, known simply as CP. It is well organized, frequently updated, available in French (La Presse Canadienne Guide de redaction) and available in print or as an online guide for an annual subscription fee. Also available is its very handy companion Canadian Press Caps and Spelling. Seeing as you can never have too many books (or bookmarks), here are some others to consider:

  • Associated Press Stylebook 2017. [print or online subscription]
  • Chicago Manual of Style. 17th edition. [print or online subscription]
  • Editing Canadian English: A Guide for Editors, Writers, and Everyone Who Works with Words. 3rd edition, 2015. Editors’ Association of Canada [print and ebook]

Breaking into the business

If you’re just starting out and want to become a magazine editor, it can be hard to know where to start: many different career paths might lead you there, and when you talk to people in the business you’ll find that their backgrounds, degrees and job histories are remarkably diverse. While this may seem discouraging, it actually means that if you really want to do this job, no matter where you’re starting from, it’s possible to find a path there! You’re probably inspired by the greats, like The Walrus, Harper’s, Geist, Maclean’s, Canadian Geographic or Vanity Fair. However, the fight for entry-level jobs at these institutions is fierce. To gain experience, consider the smaller magazines and journals that you might not see on the newsstands: depending on your interests, small literary or art journals, science and nature journals, online-only magazines, and industry and association journals (to name a few) employ many more editors than the newsstand magazines. At these magazines you can gain critical experience while doing satisfying, challenging work in fascinating niche fields, and you’ll meet talented professionals happy to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm for the evolving world of magazine editing.

Career path to becoming a magazine editor [web resource]
Good basic information. Divided into three sections: Gaining Early Experience, Getting the Proper Education, and Breaking into the Field. Emphasizes the path from writer to editor, which is just one among many.

How to be a copy editor for a magazine [blog]
A short, clear article on what it’s like to be a copy editor for a magazine.

So you want to be an editor: Information about a career in editing (Editors’ Canada) [web resource and PDF]
Perhaps the best brief introduction and overview of the field of editing; includes sections on where and how editors work, career paths, rewards and drawbacks, educations and training, and interesting “meet an editor” boxes throughout, which bring the field to life.

Moving on up: Thriving in magazine publishing and editing

If you’re already in the magazine business and looking to work your way up to the corner office, here are some great books and sites to help get you there:

The Art of Making Magazines, edited by Victor S. Navasky and Evan Cornog, 2012. [179-page book]
A collection of 12 articles by editors, writers, art directors and publishers from magazines such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Elle and Harper’s. A fascinating and instructive read for anyone interested in being part of the magazine business, with a good mix of practical advice and behind-the-scenes war stories from leaders in the industry.

Best Practices for Canadian Magazine Publishing, Editing and Writing, PWAC, Canadian Society of Magazine Editors, and Magazines Canada, 2011. [9-page PDF]
Created through a consensus process involving writers, magazine editors and publishers from across Canada, this document describes the professional obligations for each group in succinct bullet-points. All three sections are worth reading so that one can understand not only one’s own role, but the perspective and expectations of the other two parties in this symbiotic relationship.

The Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More by Steve Dunham, 2015. [231-page book]
A useful guide for both new and experienced editors, organized around editing for content, focus, precise language and grammar, along with advice on editorial relationships and workflow, and samples of editing with explanations of what was changed and why. Magazines Canada

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC)


Google Algorithm Updates by Michael Cottam

Google Algorithm Updates—What They Mean For Publishers

By Michael Cottam, SEO Consultant

Google is continuously improving their algorithms, striving to be able to find the best content and the best user experience for searchers amongst the incredible masses of new content published every day.

Some of what Google is adding into their algorithms is designed to recognize great, original and popular content, while other metrics are designed to catch sites that are trying to “game the system” (especially with links) or are simply republishing material that originated elsewhere.

Today, Google uses three kinds of signals for ranking web pages: content, links and user engagement metrics. Publishers need to understand what Google is looking at (both good and bad signals) in order to create and tune their sites to rank well in Google and deliver traffic to their sites.


The most famous part of Google’s algorithms that has to do with content is Panda. Launched in February 2011, it was designed to reward pages with things like big, original images; plenty of well-written text; rich content elements like videos, maps, etc. It was also designed to penalize pages with tons of ads, too much whitespace and forms above the fold, thin content, etc.; things that make the user experience less satisfying. Google has continued to tweak Panda over the years, and with each iteration Google has been better able to recognize truly good, original, useful content and/or poorer quality content that was undeservedly seen as high quality in earlier iterations of the algorithm.

What can/should publishers do with respect to their content to benefit from content-related updates? Or, at least, not be penalized by them?

  • Create a great user experience: Make the page load quickly; don’t interfere with the user experience with popup dialogs that cover the content; make it easy to get to the content on the page that they’re looking for without excessive scrolling.
  • Cover the topic thoroughly: Check out other publishers’ pages who have covered the same topic, and are ranking for the target term—are they talking about subtopics or referring to related terms that you aren’t? It’s not about the word count—it’s about covering the subject matter thoroughly on a single page. And don’t split the content across multiple pages—Google is going to pick just one of your pages to rank for that topic and ignore the content that’s on the other ones.
  • Use original images and videos: If you have the same image that was provided by the company you’re writing about, or are using stock photography for a destination article, then you’ve got nothing better to offer the user than the other publishers covering this topic. Take your own photos and videos whenever possible.
  • Use original text: Don’t copy overview material from people’s biographies, company backgrounders, or tourist bureau sites.


The most famous part of Google’s algorithms related to links is Penguin. Prior to Penguin (launched in April 2012), Google had (and still has today) manual link penalties. If you think of links like “votes” for your page, link penalties are what you get when you’re caught engaging in voter fraud. Google wants to count links to your site that represent a vote for the content on that page. Anything you do to fake this can get you in trouble. When you have a penalty, typically your page will suddenly rank 40 or more places lower than it did before the penalty…or not at all.

With manual link penalties, a Google Search Quality engineer has actually looked at your links, and can see what you’ve done to get links you didn’t really earn. The engineer manually registers a penalty against specific pages, or your entire site, and you get a notice in Google Search Console to that effect.

Penguin penalties were algorithmic, meaning that they’re automatically seeing link patterns that they know indicate bad or paid links and automatically applying a penalty to your site. You get no notification—you just stop ranking for certain terms, or for anything at all. With the advent of Penguin 4.0 in October 2016, Google claimed that there was no longer a Penguin penalty—those types of links that Penguin was penalizing are now simply ignored by the Page Rank calculations. However, it’s very important to note that there still are algorithmic penalties in Google outside of Penguin, and you CAN get penalized for certain kinds of link patterns.

What can/should publishers do with respect to links to protect against link-related updates?

  • Don’t get links from pages that are going to be syndicated across many sites—this is known as “article marketing.” That includes e-press releases.
  • Avoid site-wide links on other sites. It’s fine to sponsor a charity, for example, but ask for a single link from a page related to your sponsorship, or a blog post, or their About page—not a site wide footer or sidebar link.
  • Don’t get links from sites where clearly humans don’t visit: directories you’ve never heard of, blogs where the content is fluff, sites that don’t get shared on social media or linked to by many other sites.
  • Do review your latest backlinks periodically in Search Console and if you find really bad sites linking to you, submit a disavow file to Google Search Console with those domains in it.
  • Do traditional marketing and PR, and make that the reason you get links. Be a resource for reporters to interview/quote on your industry; contribute to blogs and journals in your space; support charities and your community and get mentioned in the newspaper because of that.


What is Google measuring when it comes to user engagement? The two most likely signals are click through rate and bounce rate.

Each position from 1 to 10 on page 1 has an average click through rate (CTR). For example, about 20% of searchers will click on the first organic search result; about 13% will click on the second result, etc. If your page is the fourth result for a given search, and the average CTR on result #4 is 9%, and over the last 100 searches for that term Google sees 12% of people click on your result, that’s a positive signal to Google that your headline and snippet matches what the searchers are looking for. On the other hand, if your CTR is lower than average, it indicates searchers aren’t liking what your page says it is.

Your bounce rate is the percentage of searchers that click on you in the search results, then click the back button AND click a different result. Presumably, this indicated that your page didn’t answer their question—at least, not completely—and they had to go to another page to complete their task. A high bounce rate thus indicates to Google that your page’s content is either low quality or not very relevant/helpful for that particular search query. Conversely, a low bounce rate indicates your page is a great answer to that searcher’s question.

What can/should publishers do with respect to user engagement signals to protect against changes in this part of the algorithm?

  • Be sure your content thoroughly covers the page’s topic, so that a searcher probably won’t have to go to your competitor’s page to get the rest of the information they’re looking for.
  • Structure your page in such a way that the user can see that the subtopic they might be looking for is on the page, even if it’s not initially visible. Use tabs, or use inpage anchors to scroll to sections.
  • Do the searches yourself, and look at what Google is showing for your page’s headline and snippet (which come from the page title and the meta description in general). Ask yourself if your page in the search result looks more compelling than the other 9 on page 1. Does your result look credible (mention reviews, BBB A+ rating, years in business, etc.)? Does it look spammy or legit (don’t use a page title of “Purple Widgets – Widgets that are Purple – Purple Colored Widgets” for example).
  • Use rich content like videos, maps, virtual tours that engage the visitor and keep them on your page.
  • Don’t use tricks like stuffing your JavaScript history or having a series of redirect hops to make the user have to click the back button multiple times to get back to the search results. This might make your bounce rate look good in Google Analytics, but it will have no effect on how Google Search measures your bounce rate.


Google is continually refining their algorithm, making it better at recognizing great content, and recognizing “buzz” or positive mentions from real people—especially authorities. If you design your site content for a great user experience, giving the user the best and most complete resource for the topics they’re searching, then as long as you’re not doing crazy coding tricks that prevent Google from seeing your content clearly and correctly, you should be in good shape. When it comes to links, don’t think about links: think about marketing, getting exposure in places on the web that real people visit regularly. The links that come from this kind of exposure are the kinds of links you want, that Google will see as “editorial votes” for your content and brand, and keep you out of Google penalties. Magazines Canada

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC)