It’s amazing what you can learn in eight months.
In the middle of June last year, I got together with a few writers and creatives to start a niche lifestyle blog.
Black Ballad is a glossy lifestyle website aimed at mixed-race and black British women.
Having observed the recent boom in digital publishing and brands behaving like publishers for some time, I knew there would be a lot more to this than simply writing content and sticking it in WordPress.
However, the more I did and researched, the more I realised how complex the current state of digital media is.
We are producing and consuming content more than ever before. Buzzfeed has shifted from cats and memes to long form reporting and serialised video series production.
Vine has successfully shortened time, while simultaneously extending it with its addictively endless number of six second lols. And brands like Nike make their advert releases feel like film premieres.
They are all in the business of trying to attract eyeballs for their content.
All in the name of selling basketball trainers.
With so much to compete with, how is anyone meant to survive in this world? Here are some of the things I learned from my adventure thus far:
1. Your addressable audience is not ‘everyone’
It is useful to know and understand that technology has shattered the geographical boundaries which used to confine publisher’s efforts (and protect their revenue streams).
Any given piece of content on the web can in theory be accessed by anyone on a connected device. But is my Ultimate Guide To Mixed Race Hair going to be read by everyone with a computer, smartphone or tablet? Probably not.
If you can get your hands on Kim Kardashian’s bare, oiled up bottom with the combined aim of #BreakingTheInternet, by all means go for it.
But for the majority of smaller publishers, attracting eyeballs can also be achieved by really knowing and understanding a well-defined audience.
In an environment where the main currency being spent by consumers is not pounds or dollars, but actually their attention, it is more efficient to create content that resonates with hyper-defined audiences, than it is to add to mainstream noise.
2. Your content strategy, however you define it, is crucial
Earlier I gently alluded to my misconception of how easy content creation would be. The truth is conceptualising, organising, producing and reviewing articles is an intensive stream of activities, which require a range of different skillsets.
When coupled with SEO objectives, social aspirations or any other triggers or goals, the complexity only intensifies.
Putting together a content strategy helps map out what it will take to achieve your definition of success and should be instructive in helping you get there.
However, keeping it as an immovable feast is to your detriment and will do no favours.
Whether you are responding to Facebook’s new-found love of video, or to recent trends that have developed among your audience, it is always worth addressing how doing so will affect your editorial balance.
There is loads more to discuss here, but the Econsultancy Digital Content Strategy Best Practice Guide does it far better than I can.
3. Sharing content is a really personal experience
Back to your hyper-defined audience and getting them to share your content. Digital publishers and those they report to are looking for scale and for many, this means the social web.
Like anyone starting a project, I urged my friends and loved ones to share and support me. The problem is, instead of messages talking about how great the product is, their support was centred around myself, which is great for my ego, but not for pushing the brand.
— Claud Williams (@Claud_Williams) May 25, 2014
It is here I really understood that most people share things on social media based on relationship and/or emotional triggers, which may not be the narrative of the content creator.
This is where clearly defining your audience is useful. While the Asian American audience may be relatively small compared to Buzzfeed’s overall addressable market, there is a reason that a post about 27 Signs You Were Raised By Asian Immigrant Parents is one of Buzzfeed’s most-read posts.
4. Facebook is your best friend… for now
Despite most of my friends stating they are publicly abandoning Facebook for the likes of Twitter and Snapchat, Facebook is by far a superior method of driving traffic.
For Black Ballad’s top performing posts, Facebook is responsible for 41% of traffic, compared to just 19% for the remaining articles. And this doesn’t include Facebook traffic unhelpfully masked as direct traffic.
However, while plenty of publishers are trying to maximise and monetize their Facebook audiences, others are increasingly wary of becoming reliant on the social network, given what happened to the likes of Zynga when Facebook said games aren’t that cool any more.
This doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon given what we know about Facebook wanting to be a platform that facilitates cultural and contextual discussion.
However, that doesn’t mean making Facebook your BFF exclusively is a smart move.
5. Make sure you get an email address
Now email might be old, but don’t think that it can’t be valuable. Last year saw an uptick in publishers deploying digest email newsletters as they sought alternative ways to get in front of readers.
Capturing email addresses has been an important part of our acquisition strategy, especially when meeting with potential readers face to face.
— Black Ballad (@Blackballaduk) August 15, 2014
Taking pictures of well-dressed/made-up potential readers makes grabbing their email address in the process easy.
And these subscribers are four times more likely to open emails and three times more likely to clickthrough to articles than those subscribing directly from the website or through social.
6. Custom/Tailored Audiences can be lethal weapons
Another misconception I had: content that is really good doesn’t need paid promotion on social media. I can get in front of millions all by myself.
Yeah, I know, I was young and dumb OK?
Paid social activity can be great for amplifying great content when you don’t have sufficient reach.
However, if you have segmented your email addresses or traffic data accordingly, it is even better at reconnecting with previous readers by showing them content they are likely to be interested in based on what they have read previously.
There is loads of potential here if the data is modelled correctly. Using this glorious prank for inspiration, a street style custom audience experiment created a 350% uplift in traffic compared to similar articles. For the grand total of £1.79.
7. Influencers are key, but not always helpful
Brands working with influential figures to boost performance is certainly not a new thing. It is also not unexpected that the result of such collaborative efforts vary in effectiveness.
Here are some things we try to do to make sure we maximise the partnership.
- Observe how the influencer actually engages their following; number of likes isn’t enough! How does their followings’ behaviour change on different platform? Do they comment and like more on pictures, videos or links? What types of posts get the most retweets?
- Get a sense of the type of following they actually have: Use tools like Followerwonk to have a look at their followers. Is this definitely the type of person you want to associate with?
- Don’t expect your influencers to share your content in the most optimum fashion without instruction. Suggest times and formats to post content.
8. Evergreen is the gift that keeps on giving
There is more to life than social shares and invading inboxes. We also tried our hands at creating how-to guides and expert reviews that might not create a buzz now, but would pay dividends further on down the line.
When we published this article in August, it didn’t do that great, but five months later, the guide acquired five times more views than it did in its first month, mostly coming from search.
The team here at Econsultancy Towers swear by this stuff, so you should probably look at how you can optimise evergreen content.
9. Data tells you what your instincts can’t
The past eight months are laced with mistakes and pleasant surprises. In the day-to-day running of the site, it is easy to assume success or failure based on how things felt or appeared at the time.
Most of the things that are guiding the goals and actions of the website in 2015 stem from things we found in our content audit at the end of 2014. There were things we assumed did well that didn’t actually do that well and vice versa.
Scanning our keyword data opened our eyes to more content ideas and ways to refresh existing content. Exploring Twitter Analytics revealed useful nuggets of information. Even looking at unsubscribe rates for the newsletter provided some direction going forward.
Data is for more than reporting, it can be useful too.
10. There are still loads of questions that still need answering
Can digital publications become long term viable commercial opportunities? Are native ads worth the hype? What is programmatic again? Is it smart to make content exclusively for social media? How much personalisation is too much personalisation?
The world of publishing continues to go through upheaval, with legacy publications struggling and startups scurrying to get sufficient scale.
In a world where too few seem to have a concrete plan of action, there is still plenty up for grabs and lots more to learn, so testing and experimenting need to be just as important to any publisher as journalistic integrity and well-written prose.