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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:

Scale
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.

Engagement
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.

Devotion
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.

Scale
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.

Engagement
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.

Devotion
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.

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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)

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