On second thought, don’t think like a publisher

By Derek Slater, Content Director  |  Apr 28, 2016


Credit: Louisiana Sea Grant College Program Louisiana State University with Photoshop modification, Flickr

Experts often tell content marketers: “Think like a publisher.”

In many ways, it’s a good idea. Establish a cadence, create an editorial calendar and a style guide — that’s all smart. But in some ways, it’s foolish.

I have a lot of contacts in a lot of different publishing houses. (That is a subtle way of saying I’m old.) Discussions with these colleagues have brought to light some half-baked yet surprisingly common thinking.

If you’re a content strategist or content marketer, here are three ways you should not think like a publisher.

1. Don’t think of your content operation like a SpaghettiOs factory.

SpaghettiOs are manufactured. You essentially pour a known quantity of ingredients into a machine, which extrudes a predictable amount of food product. Sure, you need a mechanic to maintain the machine, and you have to clean it from time to time, but this process can largely be managed by counting: This many ingredients yields this many cans.

One person I know refers to his media company as The Magic SpaghettiO Factory. It’s managed by counting: If this many stories yields this much traffic, then we just write twice as many stories, and we’ll get twice as much traffic.

What makes it “magic” is the expectation that the same number of journalists can write twice as many stories. In other words, the same quantity of ingredients is supposed to somehow yield twice as many cans of SpaghettiOs.

Don’t think like that.

First, content isn’t assembly line work. The more formulaic you make it, the more you commoditize your product and brand. 

Second, volume isn’t a blanket solution. A B2B journalist from Denmark and I had the following exchange:

He: “When we publish more than seven articles in a day, the traffic goes down.”

I: “Diminishing returns, eh?”

He: “No. Not diminishing returns. Less traffic. Fewer people come to the site. Publishing too many stories hurts our overall traffic.”

Are there times when more volume is the right strategy? Sure. Is it always the right strategy? Of course not.

Third, why would you serve your customers SpaghettiOs?

2. Don’t dither on your CMS upgrades.

In 2006, my publication ran on a rickety Web platform, hand-built using ColdFusion and probably some double-sided tape. Posting a single story took hours. Traffic was flat. Then, after two years of arguing and handwringing over investing in a new content management system, we finally moved to a modern TeamSite platform.

This new CMS had basic yet modern features for the time, such as decently handling images and producing human-readable, search-friendly URLs. It enabled us to start building our audience. By 2012, traffic to our site had tripled.

If you’re a publisher, you need a modern publishing platform. Period. Yet many publishers struggle with this idea. At that company, the arguing and handwringing over a CMS upgrade commenced again in 2012 and lasted another couple years.

Colleagues report similar struggles at other established media companies. One publisher with multiple sites spent three years dithering over whether to upgrade from an ancient version of Drupal to a new version of Drupal.

Please don’t think about your CMS like these publishers. Browsers, devices, and presentation layer technology all change fast. Content types do too. An outdated CMS doesn’t serve your audience very well, and as you are trying to reach your target customers, it puts you at a competitive disadvantage.

What’s really baffling about long-delayed publisher projects is that CMS decisions aren’t mysterious. They require hard work and attention to detail, of course, but we aren’t talking about Fermat’s Last Theorem. Aaron Jones, former chief technology officer at publisher International Data Group, offers this very basic bit of CMS advice:

“Focus on constant, small iterations. Choose a flexible software stack with a clear separation of concerns (using APIs), upgrade underlying components aggressively, and try to consolidate against a relative few core technical competencies. Release frequently, so as to not fall behind, and collaborate frequently, and with high touch, with the users of the system.”

Depending on resources and goals, content marketers today might choose to rely on a publishing platform like Medium to stay current. Jones notes that because larger brands typically have more complex requirements, they might be stuck with customized systems and more traditional big-bang upgrade cycles.

Whatever your particular case may be, don’t dither. A 3-year-old platform is very old. A 4-year-old platform is an embarrassing flea market relic. By the time your CMS hits month 48, its update or replacement should be completed and ready to launch.

3. Don’t fall under the spell of a single metric.

Many publishers love page views. It’s a side effect of the ad-driven business model.

The page view metric does have some value. It tells you which topics and stories are resonating, and whether your overall traction is increasing. But a singular focus on this (or any other) metric will distort your behavior and your content mix.

When you overemphasize page views, you get meaningless slideshows, disruptive pagination, and vapid insta-content burped out to chase trending hashtags.

Don’t think like an ad-driven publisher. It is easy to count," management guru W. Edwards Deming says. "Counts relieve management of the necessity to contrive a measure with meaning."

I love analytics, so I want to count everything too, but to run a healthy, effective content program, I have to look at quality, competitive differentiation, and audience interests and reading habits. Not just page views.

To contrive “a measure with meaning,” find a balanced set of three to six metrics that align your content and your behaviors with the overall business goals.

Topics: journalistic content, content marketing, agile, editing, marketing strategy, culture, history, publishing, CMS

Derek Slater, Content Director

Derek Slater, Content Director

Prior to joining Ready State, Derek spent two decades in B2B technology journalism. He was editor in chief of award-winning security publication CSO for seven years, and he previously held editorial leadership positions with CIO and with the Enterprise IT and Finance media groups at FierceMarkets. He wrote the book Content Marketing in 30 Minutes and has special interest in two areas: the use of analytics and SEO data to inform content creation, and content reuse and recycling. Derek has helped clients from startups to tech giants to develop more effective content strategies and create better content.