How Publishers Can Engineer Higher Readership per Article
Could there be a better way to approach writing your content and curating the content previously written? If your goal is to get the maximum market value out of each story, there just might be.
“Editors look for what is new and write about it,” says Gerrit Klein, CEO of special interest and B2B media company Ebner Publishing International. Makes sense -- that’s Editing 101. About six years ago Klein’s company looked at what people were actually reading. “We saw they were interested in news, but it wasn’t where they spent their time.”
Ebner is a German publishing powerhouse with about 80 magazines, dozens of websites and events that draw 50-60,000 people annually in 17 B2B and enthusiast markets. Their content review found 85% of web traffic was generated by a tiny portion of what they wrote. On one typical website, about 800 articles generated 80% of page views. The lowest-producing 8,000 articles generated a mere 2% of readership.
They saw consistency in the actions and searches readers took. “In a niche topic, you will pose the same questions as a thousand people before you and a thousand people behind you,” Klein muses. The question was not whether you have written about a topic; the question is do readers have the possibility to find what you wrote? In the example above, Ebner deleted those 8,000 barely-read articles. They now routinely purge under-performing content so it does not compete with the articles readers’ actions have identified as most important.
Using “Information Units” to Engineer Content
An important part of the process is resurfacing evergreen content. Though the industry term refers to articles with timeless value, Ebner’s audience development department reworks these articles every 3-6 months. They check the most popular Google-search keywords and phrases and update the articles accordingly. (That’s right: as opposed to the common practice of using AD as a replacement term for the old circulation department, at Ebner they are content engineers.)
Ebner will also often repurpose news into evergreen content. For example, Ebner covers the watch market. The moment a new Rolex is launched, that is news. Over the months and years there will be modifications, like a new dial or new metals. There may be important information about the resellers’ market or grey market. Rather than letting that original announcement wither and recede into the website, unread, these changes and updates keep the article fresh and resurfaces it, making it more accessible.
Keywords and phrases are now deployed in all phases of content creation. Before any new article is written, the journalist must fill out a form with the article’s purpose, goal, title, etc. This gives you a target to aim for, making the result more likely to be successful. The process includes selecting from a large, pre-determined list of keywords and phrases for the market you are writing for. The audience development team updates each list every six months.
The content engineering does not stop with keywords and phrases. Ebner uses the philosophy that successful media content needs to be comprised of information units (IUs), each constructed from 10-12 MIUs (minimum information units). An MIU can be a quote, a list, a graph, a video or other self-contained units which, when working together, produce a viable IU.
“Instead of writing 1700 words about the seven most import things about X, break it down into at least seven separate components,” explains Klein. “It’s a little like building with Legos.” Each of those may well contain more than one MIU. If it is a story about the Caribbean, you might include a section on the 10 best beaches with gallery or video MIUs. The IU about the most exclusive bars might include MIUs such as favorite drink recipes. Other MIUs in the article might be maps, graphs, lists, boxed quotes. “Every MIU should be understandable by itself.”
I wondered if this was a digital-only approach, since this formula seems perfect for mobile and even desktop. “It’s working especially well with print,” I was surprised to hear. In the past a feature previously might have run three pages, with two photos and a couple of call-outs. “Don’t write it all in words. Make a graph or a list,” says Klein. If an interview is a big part of the article, rather than weave it into the story, box it and have it stand on its own.
“We have to make it as easy as possible for the reader,” says Klein. “Normally we wrote something and left the reader with the task to deconstruct it into its different pieces of information. But it is our job to deconstruct first and deliver as understandable as possible. We have to think first and write second.”
Since instituting this company-wide approach, Ebner calculates their reach in all niches has grown 4-5X. Readership has never been higher, including print, online, newsletters, events and social media. Advertisers notice the growth and energy behind the brands and are investing accordingly. Ebner execs feel like they are still finding new conversion possibilities. Unlike most of the B2B media here in the U.S., most of Ebner’s magazines are paid circulation.
For the staff, there is a great deal of in-house training across niches. Ebner finds that once you learn the methodology, you can apply it to any market. In fact, sometimes being a content expert in a particular niche becomes a disadvantage. “The more you become a specialist in a market, the more you can miss the needs of the target market. Because you know too much and [the audience is] not thinking like you.”
In the article-planning process, in addition to goal and keywords, writers fill in what MIUs they intend to use to build the piece. Ebner has been hiring journalists and teaching them the methodology, and has had great success with young people fresh out of college with no journalism background. By combining clear and detailed planning with the IU philosophy, Ebner sees this as a smart path for continued growth.
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Andy Kowl is a journalist and entrepreneurial publisher with more than 30 years developing, marketing and growing publishing companies. He is senior vice president of publishing strategy for ePublishing Inc., the leading enterprise publishing system (EPS) provider which manages content, audience data, workflow, newsletters and e-commerce for hundreds B2B online publications. He helps publishers increase reader engagement and response by integrating behavioral data with contextual content, and shows them direct ways to monetize the results. Andy writes the B2B Beat blog for Publishing Executive magazine. His background in B2B includes publishing, editing and/or owning magazines and information products covering specialty retail, horse breeding, real estate, credit unions, Wall Street compliance and wireless technology.